March 8, 1998

Egypt’s Tourism Trade-Offs Prices Plunge Amid The Threat Of Islamic Militant Attacks

Douglas Jehl The New York Times

Any other year this would be the height of the tourist season here, and the Egyptian Museum, the Pyramids and other sites would be all but overrun by foreign visitors.

Instead, the devastating effect of the November massacre of 58 tourists at the Temple of Hatshepsut in Luxor in southern Egypt can be measured in deserted parking lots, empty hotel rooms and the fact that tourist police sometimes outnumber tourists.

For travelers who choose not to be scared away, the inducements are substantial. Most hotels are offering heavily discounted rooms, while Egypt Air has slashed many of its domestic fares by 30 percent. And while the United States embassy here continues to advise Americans to exercise caution throughout Egypt, it has canceled a warning issued immediately after the Nov. 17 attack, advising Americans to avoid travel to southern Egypt altogether.

So far, however, the attack, carried out by Islamic militants opposed to the Egyptian government, has served its apparent purpose. Statistics issued in December by Egypt’s Ministry of Tourism put average hotel occupancy at just 18 percent, down from an expected 80 percent for the winter season.

The well-situated Old Cataract Hotel in Aswan, the setting for Agatha Christie’s “Murder on the Nile,” was expected to be fully booked in January; it is just one-fifth full.

In Luxor, the Winter Palace has shuttered its two modern wings and cut prices by as much as 40 percent. But on a recent night it had filled no more than 15 of the 102 rooms in the original structure, which has been a favorite wintering spot for the rich since it was built in 1886 by the British travel entrepreneur Thomas Cook.

Indeed, Thomson Tours of Britain, one of the many package operators that have followed in Cook’s wake, has simply canceled all its tours to Egypt through April, setting a tone for a season in which the oversize buses used by package operators have been replaced by minivans.

“Before the massacre, our problem was too many tourists,” said Sami Arafa, a financial manager at the Egyptian Museum, which used to average 5,000 foreign visitors a day. “Now it is totally the opposite.” Before Nov. 17, Arafa said, ticket sales brought in about $35,000 a day; they have dropped to about $6,000, and the once-bustling parking lot just outside the museum is mostly empty, except for the dozens of well-armed police officers.

In September that parking lot, in the heart of Cairo, had been the scene of another attack on tourists by Islamic militants, in which nine Germans and their Egyptian driver were killed.

The heavy police presence now reflects the formidable measures the Egyptian government has put in place since the November strike - the worst mass killing in the country’s modern history. The Luxor massacre exposed the laxity of past measures, with six attackers quickly overcoming the only two police guards on duty at the temple.

In its aftermath, more than a dozen high-ranking Egyptian security officials were disciplined. In the updated information sheet it issued on Jan. 13, the United States embassy here cited the enhanced security measures as among the reasons for canceling the November warning on Upper Egypt.

But after more than five years of attacks by the militants, the embassy reiterated that “the potential for terrorist attacks exists.” And it urged Americans to seek advice from the embassy, licensed tour operators or the Egyptian authorities before considering travel within four governorates in central Egypt, along the Nile between Cairo and Luxor, that have been the setting for most of the decade’s bloodshed.

Altogether, more than 1,200 people have been killed since 1992 in the clashes between the militants and the Egyptian authorities, but until the Luxor massacre the level of violence had appeared to be declining, and 1997 had been on pace to become a record year, with 4.2 million foreign visitors, up from a low of 2.5 million in 1993.

As part of its effort to lure tourists back, the Egyptian government has resumed a heavy television advertising campaign on internationally broadcast channels, featuring magnificent scenes of its Pharaonic sites and asking viewers: “Don’t you wish you were in Egypt?”

Government officials have been candid about their concern that the consequences of the Luxor attack could be even more severe on an industry that employs 700,000 people in hotels and travel agencies alone.

To try to cushion the effect, it has outlined a plan to offer discounts to its neighbors to try to fill rooms usually occupied by European, Japanese and American visitors. And for now, hotel operators say they are doing all they can to avoid layoffs.

“We are keeping them because we know tourists will be back,” said Hala al-Khatib, communications manager for Accore Hotels, which runs nine hotels in Egypt.

Map of area

Thoughts and opinions on this story? Click here to comment >>

Get stories like this in a free daily email