FRANKFURT (Reuters) - European tour operators and airlines cancelled trips to Cairo as angry protesters took to the streets, dealing a blow to a tourism industry that provides about one in eight jobs in the country.
Mass protests have raged in Egyptian cities in the past five days against President Hosni Mubarak’s 30-year rule, and at least 74 people have been killed. Police and the army have turned out in force to quell the demonstrations.
Television footage of tanks on city streets, burning buildings and running battles between police and protesters will slash tourism levels, although it may only be short-term.
When gunmen killed 58 tourists and four Egyptians at an ancient temple in Luxor in 1997, tourism slumped but picked up fairly quickly and since then has weathered disruptions relatively well.
The September 11, 2001 attacks, the second Palestinian Intifada, and a series of bomb attacks on tourist resorts in Sinai from 2004 to 2006 all led to temporary decreases in tourist arrivals, but the trend over the last decade has been broadly upward.
In 2009 about 12.5 million tourists visited Egypt, bringing revenue of $10.8 billion (£6.8 billion). The tourism sector is one of the top sources of foreign revenue, accounting for more than 11 percent of GDP, and offers jobs in a country beset by high unemployment.
Some governments advised their citizens against travelling to Egypt unless they had to, and the Egyptian government has imposed a curfew, prompting airlines including Germany’s Lufthansa to cancel flights to Cairo on Saturday.
British Airways said it sent an extra plane to evacuate tourists.
“We’ve booked a charter flight that’s going in today in order to get as many people out as we can,” said a BA spokesperson, adding the plane can carry up to 90 people.
A BMI flight to Cairo carrying 64 passengers and six crew members returned to London after turning back in mid-flight, a spokesman for the Lufthansa-owned carrier said.
Outside of major urban centres the dissent has been more muted and the impact less severe.
Operators TUI Travel and Thomas Cook stuck with scheduled trips to Red Sea holiday destinations such as Hurghada and Sharm El-Sheik saying travellers were safe so far away from the cities.
Tourists basking in the sun at resorts on the Red Sea coast continued to enjoy their vacations, tour operators said.
“Our tour management organisation in Egypt tells us that everything is quiet in the holiday regions and that our guests are having a quiet holiday there,” a spokeswoman for TUI Deutschland TUI Travel’s German arm, said.
Thomas Cook said it had cancelled stays in Cairo for holidaymakers booked on round trips of Egypt. Both companies said none of their guests had asked to return home early.
Some tourists were untroubled by the unrest.
“It’s been an experience I’ll never forget,” said Joe, an American about to wrap up a two-week visit to Egypt.
Michelle, a tourist from Australia, said she was going ahead with a visit on Sunday to the Mediterranean city of Alexandria, which has also seen massive protests against Mubarak.
“That’s going to a highlight for us, because my father was born in Alexandria,” she told Reuters.
Additional reporting by Michelle Martin, Mohammed Abbas, and Mohamed Zaki; Editing by Matthew Jones