Tourists shun post-revolution Egypt

Amer El Shaer’s family has run a business for 30 years, and they simply can’t remember a harder time. He knows the new government is trying to make things better. He’s just fed up with waiting.

Amer El Shaer struggles to fill his days. He’s cleaned his shop several times. He’s sorted his stock and reorganised his shelves. And surprisingly, his paperwork is all up to date.

So now he really has nothing more to do than wait.  

Sometimes he waits on the chairs in his store. Sometimes he waits on the bench, outside in the sun. And sometimes he waits behind the counter, hoping somehow that will produce a customer.

There was a time when his perfume store in the shadow of the pyramids at Giza would be packed with tourists. But not now.  

The revolution that changed Egypt has scared the tourists away.

For Amer, it’s now not about living, but surviving: “Before the revolution, we were making a good profit from the goods we were selling, but it’s dropped way down, but it is better than nothing. It is a struggle to feed my family.”

And he sees no immediate prospect of things getting better: “Not until a president is elected do I think our situation will improve.”

His story is not unique. Many places are struggling. Some stores don’t even bother opening every day. Any new face is suddenly besieged by offers from guides and stores, offering cut price rates.

The camels and horses, which transport visitors around the pyramids, look sad and exhausted. “We can’t afford the good feed. We are not making enough,” says Muhammed, one of the carriage drivers who used to make four or five journeys around the pyramids each day. Now he’s lucky if he makes one.

Figures released on Sunday by the government’s statistics agency reveal that in the first three months of the year, tourism was down by 46 per cent. In February, just over 200,000 thousand foreign visitors came here. The year before it was 1.1 million. Egypt needs tourism. More than one in 10 jobs are directly linked to the industry. And at the moment, it is losing $40m a day.

One American tourist from Wisconsin tells me he is on a Middle East tour. He is been to Jordan and wants to go to Libya. For the moment he’s happy in Egypt: “If you watch American television news you would think that people are dying on street corners every day. I know they had some trouble in January but that looks as if it is all over.”

A Swiss man heading out on a camel ride says he expected things to be so much busier: “But it’s great for me. I can walk around with no crowds and go where I want. But I know Egypt needs tourists so I hope they come back.”

Samir Radwan, Egypt’s finance minister, hopes so too. He knows that tourism will be the driver for any economic resurgence: “Tourists used to walk in the streets of Egypt at four o’clock in the morning or two o’clock in the morning, no problem. And we want this back so we can regain one of the main sources of growth in this economy.”

The traders here are worried. As the temperatures go up, the number of visitors drop off marking the end of the first high season. The next begins around September. But that’s when elections are planned. And if there is any trouble then, 2011 could end up being a complete write-off.

Amer El Shaer’s family has run this business for 30 years, and they simply can’t remember a harder time. He knows the new government is trying to make things better. He’s just fed up with waiting.