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Egypt Taps Chinese Tourists As Western Visitors Stay Away

From launching new air routes to studying Mandarin, Egypt's tourism industry isn't just standing idly by while post-revolution problems keep American and European visitors away.

An Egyptian artist performs at the Guangzhou international tourism exhibition
An Egyptian artist performs at the Guangzhou international tourism exhibition
Edmund Bower

CAIRO — Walking around the Egyptian Museum of Cairo, it's hard to imagine that just 10 years ago this world-famous attraction was crawling with foreign visitors. Nowadays, the museum is peacefully quiet, attracting mainly Egyptian school groups. But on this particular day in May, in a large empty hall of the museum, three foreign visitors stand in front of a statue of Hatshepsut.

They are from China, and are staying for just four days in Egypt. "We're enjoying our trip," says 27-year-old Long Yen. "We only have four days here, so we want to do as much as we can. This is the first time any of us has been to Egypt, so we want to see everything."

Many in Egypt's tourism industry see Chinese visitors like Long as the answer to their prayers. Tourism as a whole plummeted after the revolution, but while sun and sea tourism on the Red Sea has shown signs of a modest recovery, cultural tourism has remained in a slump. It was reported last year that revenue from cultural heritage sites had fallen by 95% since the revolution.

The only market for cultural tourism that hasn't shrunk is the Chinese market. Far from decreasing, the number of Chinese visitors is expected to double from pre-revolution levels.

Since the year 2000, external Chinese tourism has increased worldwide from 13 million to 165 million per year. During this period, the Chinese share of world tourism has gone from being a relatively small amount to the largest outbound market, thanks to growing prosperity and government policies aimed at stimulating international travel.

Egypt has been keen to tap into this growing market. Former Tourism Minister Hesham Zaazou set a target of 200,000 annual Chinese visitors by the end of 2015, almost double the 109,000 tourists a year before the revolution. Egypt may well reach this goal.

"Egypt has a lot to offer in terms of cultural tourism," says John Kester of the United Nations World Tourism Organization. "If the government steps up work with tour companies and puts more "airlift" into the market, then this is a real possibility."

The government has been doing exactly that. In February, the Ministry of Tourism announced three new charter flights from Aswan to Shengzen, Shanghai and Chengdu.

Speaking their language

It's not just the government that has been working to attract Chinese tourists. Individual tour guides have also been marketing themselves to this new group of visitors.

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Pyramids at the Giza Necropolis — Photo: Holger

Like so many in Egypt, 40-year-old Hany Hamid has worked most of his life in tourism. He has been a tour guide for the past 28 years. The problems Egypt has faced since 2011 have really damaged his work. "I earn a quarter of what I used to, and I have a family of four," he says. "I need to find a new market."

A keen observer of the industry, Hamid concluded that Chinese visitors represented an under-tapped and rapidly growing business opportunity. "The Chinese market has been growing for a while, but in the last month there have been a lot more," he says. "This is the biggest tourism market in the world. I went to Dubai last year and saw how much money they spend, but here in Egypt there aren't enough Chinese-speaking tour guides to work with them."

Four months ago, Hamid decided to begin studying Chinese. "It's not been easy," he says. "It's the most difficult language in the world. I still have to be a father to my children, and work full-time as a Polish-speaking tour guide. I'm trying to give two hours a day to studying Chinese, and I hope that next year I will be able to take Chinese tours."

Despite the difficulties involved, it's an investment in time and effort that many are considering. Hamid's teacher Song Yejin offers courses at the Chinese Cultural Center in Giza. "Right now there are about 1,000 Chinese-speaking tour guides," Song says. "We used to run a course called "Chinese Tour Guide in Egypt." We're going to bring it back soon because recently there has been so much demand for it. We are turning people away right now."

Mohamed Salah Eddin, or Kai Xin in Chinese, is one of those 1,000 Chinese-speaking guides. Like most people in the local tourist trade, he's trained in Egyptology and English. His ambition was to become a tour guide, but when he graduated in 2011 he found that the tourists had vanished. "Everyone was scared away by the revolution, and after it was over they never came back," she says. "They were all still scared, except for the Chinese. The Chinese news never says anything about Egypt. Europeans and North Americans think that Egypt is a dangerous country, but not the Chinese. All they know about Egypt is pyramids and mummies."

A sound investment

Eddin went back to school to study Chinese, and when he graduated again he found that he had acquired a sought-after skill. "Every tour guide in Egypt has learned either English or French or another European language," he says. "Not enough of them have learned Chinese."

There are reasons why, of course. Chinese is a notoriously difficult language to learn. Of the 20 who enrolled in Mohamed's course, he was only one of four who graduated.

Those who succeed stand a good chance of being rewarded. It's not just the volume of Chinese tourists to Egypt that's important. The type of trips they tend to take is crucial too. Chinese tourists are far more likely than Europeans to spend money on Egypt's cultural sites. "They will not travel to Red Sea resorts," says Kester of the UNWTO. "Beach holidays are not popular in China, but if they decide they want a beach destination, then they have many much closer to home." Chinese visitors instead tend to spend more time visiting attractions such as the Great Pyramids and The Valley of the Kings.

"People are interested to see an ancient culture," explains Long Yen. "People in China are interested in Egypt for the pyramids and the monuments. You can't find them anywhere else." Although many European and North American tourists are put off by Egypt because of safety concerns, Long says this isn't an issue for the Chinese. "People saw the revolution on television, but I think it's safer now," he says. "We never hear about Egypt anymore, and so most people think it's fine to come here."

This is something that tour guides are excited about. Most European, American and Arab tourists have been moving away from Egypt's traditional attractions to resorts on the Red Sea. "When the Europeans come to Egypt, they are happy just to stay in one hotel in Sharm el-Sheikh, but the Chinese want to go everywhere," Hamid says. "They visit all of the places, and see all the sites, and everywhere they go they spend money."

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