SHARM EL-SHEIKH: A sharp slump in the posh Red Sea resort of Sharm El-Sheikh’s tourism sector has left industry professionals and workers living there with anxieties about the upcoming season that kicks off in April.
“The November-January season hasn’t only witnessed a low turnout, said Arif, a Bedouin taxi driver, “it’s dead and anyone who often visits Sharm will tell you that.
Late last year businesses that rely on tourists began to feel the pinch of the global financial crisis with plummeting occupancy rates in hotels and other sea resorts.
In mid January, Tourism Minister Zoheir Garranah said that despite the 25 percent growth rate in the industry throughout the first three quarters of 2008, since the global economic crisis hit in September numbers have been dropping.
The global tourism sector grew by only 2 percent. In fiscal year of 2008, tourism contributed around 7 percent of Egypt’s GDP with revenues rising 16 percent to reach $11 billion. But despite the growth, the minister said that there will be layoffs within the sector in the coming period, with forecasts of a sharp drop in the number of visitors.
To deal with the ailing international economy, Garranah said Egypt will implement a crisis plan in 2009. Instead of reducing prices, the plan will rely on adding value to tourists’ visits by offering more free nights or enhancing tour packages and increasing the number of charter flights coming into the country.
The plan may not, however, hold in the face of mass cancellations.
“Many reservations that were made for January 2009 were cancelled, a hotel receptionist, who spoke on condition of anonymity, told Daily News Egypt.
“It isn’t a matter of low or high rates. It is a question of low demand that’s obviously caused by the crisis. Even if we lower the rates, the result would be the same. I am not optimistic about the new season.
Others in the industry, such as hotel and car rental managers as well as owners of diving centers and Safari trip organizers, pointed out that the season following the New Year is usually a low time for the entire East Coast.
Vacationers from Egypt, Europe and Gulf countries, however, often start to flow into the city by the beginning of February which marks the spring vacation for schools and universities.
“But the financial crisis coupled with the war on Gaza are not auguring well for the new season, said Mohamed Tarek, a hotel marketing manager.
He explained that Sharm El-Sheikh and other resorts in Sinai are on the Egyptian-Israeli border which, in itself was a big deterrent for tourists during the Gaza clashes.
“The situation in Gaza also cost us Arab tourists from Israel and the West Bank which make up a significant part of our clientele, he added.
Sources in the hospitality industry said that 30 percent of hotel staff was sent away on the promise that they will be asked to return when the situation improves.
Cab drivers, who are a sensitive gauge to the situation, say there is hardly any business, proof of the low tourist turnout since vacationers depend mainly on taxis rather than collective mini-buses for transport.
Hossam Gamal, who owns a diving center in Sharm El-Sheikh said that the current crisis also reveals a key feature of the job mosaic there.
“Most of the key jobs are taken by foreigners who are unemployed in their own countries, said Gamal.
“Whenever there’s a crisis, companies start to downsize by sending away the Egyptians. I know of some Europeans who have been working via a tourist visa for the past 15 years. Can that happen in any other country in the world?
For an Egyptian to work in Sharm El-Sheikh, a critical security zone due to its status as a venue for high level political and economic conferences, he or she needs to be officially employed at a company and present the authorities with a clean criminal record.
“If they discover that my papers aren’t in order they will send me off immediately, said El Hosseini, a taxi driver from Sharqia.
“After I completed my military service five months ago I came to Sharm to drive a taxi that belongs to a friend of mine. Back then the rules were lax, but now the cops are following anyone they suspect is hanging around without official papers.
For Tarek, the hotel marketing manager, the whole picture will become clearer after the spring vacation. “We can’t predict unless we see how things will turn out, he said.
Gamal who operates a diving center was, however, confident that tourists will continue flooding in.
“Don’t tell me tourists will stop coming to Sharm, he said. “Can you imagine the Pyramids without tourists? Similarly, Sharm is an ideal diving destination. Take for example the area around Tasmania and the Great Barrier Reef in Australia, which are our competitors but they are on the other end of the globe; they are expensive and risky. Tourists will always come back here. We have the crystal water, the mountains, desert and warm climate.
According to Osama Yousri, a Sharm El-Sheikh-based trader, this year will definitely witness an acutely low turnout, but it will never reach the point where the entire city will close down.
“Since the 2005 terrorist attacks in Sharm, tourists from all over the world have been offered packages for peanuts. I don’t think the situation will get any worse, but we just have to be patient.
Mohamed Gabr, a hotel sales executive, played down the effect of the crisis.
“Nothing will happen, believe me, he said. “The rates will go down which will encourage local and Arab tourists to come to the city. The resorts can make up for the loss by opening the city up for vacationers who couldn’t afford Sharm before.