October 23, 2014 / 1:31 AM / 3 years ago

Egypt tourism minister confident of recovery, despite challenges

Egypt's Tourism Minister Hisham Zaazou speaks during an interview with Reuters in Cairo October 21, 2014.Asmaa Waguih

CAIRO (Reuters) - Egypt's tourism minister hopes to fully revive one of the country's most vital industries by next April but persuading the world that it is safe to visit the ancient pyramids or Red Sea resorts after three years of upheaval is a daunting task.

Hisham Zaazou is mounting public relations campaigns, inviting foreign officials to visit and assess Egypt's stability for themselves and boosting security at airports and hotels.

He is fully aware that a single attack by Islamist insurgents or new street protests in a nation destabilized by political turmoil since the fall of autocrat Hosni Mubarak in 2011 could instantly undermine what he says is progress.

Zaazou's campaign is highly vulnerable to travel warnings issued by Western states who were the source of most tourists before a slump in business hammered the economy.

"Once you don't have the perception that your security and safety is guaranteed these countries will put out a negative travel advice. And that's closing the door for the client," said Zaazou in an interview for the Reuters Middle East Investment Summit.

"I went around to the source markets and asked these governments, particularly at the ministries of foreign affairs, to send technical delegations to Egypt to check our measures in that respect and write us a report."

Zaazou hopes his efforts will return annual tourism revenues -- a pillar of the economy -- to pre-uprising, peak levels of 2009 and 2010 of $12.5 billion, despite what he calls alarmist media coverage of Egypt.

"At the end of the winter season which is April 2015, not the end of 2015, we should record good numbers of the come-back and the full revival of the tourism industry," he said.

Once peaking at $12.5 billion (£7.7 billion) a year, tourism revenues were less than half that in 2013 at $5.9 billion as upheaval in the run up to the army's ouster of Islamist President Mohamed Mursi put off foreign visitors.

More than 14.7 million tourists visited Egypt in 2010, dropping to 9.8 million in 2011. They picked up the following year to 11.5 million but shrank back to 9.5 million last year.

Tourist revenue in the first half of 2014 was $3 billion, down 25 percent from the same period a year earlier, the government said in August. Government figures had shown tourism contributed 11.3 percent of GDP and 14.4 percent of foreign currency revenues.

OVERCOMING SETBACKS

Egypt's tourism industry has survived big setbacks in the past.

On Nov. 17, 1997 Islamic militants descended on Queen Hatshepsut's temple near the Nile town of Luxor. In a short time they shot or hacked to death 58 tourists and four Egyptians.

The following January and February, visitor numbers were down almost 60 percent from the previous year. Yet the industry staged a remarkable comeback.

Western countries whose travel warnings make Zaazzou's job more challenging are looking at a more complex security equation in Egypt these days.

The rapid advance of Islamic State -- a group seen as more extreme than al Qaeda -- has worried governments across the region, including in Egypt, a strategic U.S. ally which has a peace treaty with Israel and controls the Suez Canal waterway.

Employees observe GPS software tracking Egyptian tourists buses, part of a new mandatory security procedure to soon be implemented, in a control room at the Tourism Ministry building in Cairo October 21, 2014.Asmaa Waguih

Security officials say Islamic State has established contacts with Egyptian militants based in the Sinai desert who have killed hundreds of security forces.

Egypt is also closely monitoring Islamic State-inspired militants who operate just over the border in the chaos of post-Gaddafi Libya and are seeking to topple the Cairo government.

Still, Zaazou is convinced that a greater emphasis on security and innovation can make a difference.

He said he is working closely with security authorities on ways of making the Arab world's most populous nation safer in the hope of luring back European visitors who make up about 70 percent of the market.

He has his eye on potential long-haul tourists from the United States, as well as visitors from China, stressing that the Asian powerhouse exports 98 million tourists globally each year.

"I'm going to concentrate more and more in the coming few weeks on China. There is a proposition to have a charter operation for the first time from China," said Zaazou.

The minister says aside from spending from the defense and interior ministry, about $7 million has been allocated to security from his own ministry's finances over the past year.

Higher walls have been built at hotels along with devices that carry out the same task as sniffer dogs that detect 12 kinds of explosives.

A few floors down from his office at the tourism authority above a highly-congested part of the capital is a control room where the movements of buses equipped with GPS devices are closely monitored in the event of an attack, kidnapping or mechanical breakdowns that could leave tourists vulnerable.

To entice foreigners, Zaazou is coming up with new products off the once worn out tracks of the pyramids, Luxor, Aswan and Red Sea beaches.

The latest sales pitch is a guide to the foot trails of the Christian holy family in Egypt.

"We have identified the trail and the spots they were in where we have fantastic historical monasteries and churches all the way from north to the south," said Zaazou.

"It's a very important message to the whole world when it comes to tourism and the fact that this is the new Egypt," said Zaazou.

But some habits die hard in Egypt, especially at traditional places of interest like the pyramids where hawkers notorious for harassing tourists are desperate these days.

Zaazou said he will tackle that issue as well.

"We are agreeing this week with the vendors (at the pyramids) on a price list. I said the people coming won't mind paying whatever you ask for," said Zaazou.

"They mind the experience of haggling and harassing them to ride the camel or to buy this artifact or that artifact or the souvenir or whatever you're trying to sell."

Follow Reuters Summits on Twitter @Reuters_Summits

Editing by Emelia Sithole-Matarise

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