In Egypt, Tourism Is A Smiling Question Of National Security

A "Laffah"
A "Laffah"
Emil Filtenborg Mikkelsen

CAIROTayarah, which calls itself a new mixed-media hub, launched in late August with its first video campaign, entitled "Laffah," with a very specific objective: to bring back tourism to Egypt.

The project invited people to film themselves shooting short videos by turning in a circular motion to give a 360-view of their surroundings, as seen in this video expand=1].

The aim is to showcase "how different people may take Laffahs (360-degree visualizations) all over Egypt" and to encourage "people to enjoy the beauty of the places they are in and share them with others."

"It's all about branding," says Tayarah's CEO Mohamed El Dib. "If you show that Egypt is a place with good destinations, good hotels and good people — if you brand it correctly, which we are doing in the video, more people will come. We promote safety and beauty."

The video has been viewed more than 400,000 times on YouTube, and the campaign itself is backed by some big-name sponsors, including Samsung, Amer Group, the Ministry of Tourism and EgyptAir.

The success of initiatives such as Laffah, as well as more creative branding and marketing of Egypt as a safe and attractive destination, is vital to the survival of the tourism sector — a key contributor to the country's GDP.

A tourism slump

The number of tourists has fallen drastically over the past four years. For the first five months of 2014, the number of tourists visiting Egypt dropped 24% compared to last year — the worst decline since 2011. The number of visitors fell 40% from 2010, according to the state-run statistics agency CAPMAS. Meanwhile, tourism employs 12% of the work force and makes up between 5% and 10% of GDP, not including indirect industries.

In downtown Cairo, the countless souvenir shops that line the busy streets of the capital are mostly empty. The tourists that used to flock to these shops for musky perfumes, papyrus paper and trinkets have had a feeble presence for three years now, and the few who manage to make the trip are hardly enough to sustain a livelihood for the workers.

These stranded shops are merely a microcosm of the sluggishness of the overall sector, one of several struggling industries in the country's ailing economy, where growth has slowed to around 3%.

Hazem Abdel Tawab just started working at one of these bazaars again after quitting in 2011 following the Jan. 25 uprising and economic downturn it ushered in. Now he's back in the family-owned shop, but business is nowhere near what it used to be.

"Before the revolution, business was good ... and made good money," he says. "Customers were not afraid like now,” he adds, pointing to the perceived lack of security that he thinks affects tourists' mobility. "Do you see anything wrong here? Anything that is not safe? I have friends from America and Japan, and none of them say that it is unsafe. Why do the media continue to say so?"

Abdel Tawab's comments highlight one of Egypt's main challenges in revitalizing the tourism sector, namely shedding the image as an unsafe destination due to the bouts of political turmoil and ensuing violence over the past three years. The image worsened further with the resurgence of attacks on security personnel and institutions in the aftermath of former President Mohamed Morsi's removal from office in July 2013. The resulting war on terrorism, declared by the state, has mostly had devastating effects on remote parts of Sinai, where the surrounding areas are home to some of Egypt's premier getaways.

The path to recovery

"The recovery of tourism is important to keep an influx of foreign currency reserves, promote continued economic growth and create possibilities of employment, so it is a key element to this economy," says Angus Blair, an economist and founder of the Signet Institute, a Cairo-based think tank.

Egypt's foreign reserves have lost more than half their value over the last three years, but rose slightly to $16.8 billion at the end of August from $16.7 billion at the end of July, Reuters reported, citing Central Bank figures.

Without the influx of foreign currency generated by tourism, Egypt can't finance its trade deficit, currently held afloat by remittances and some foreign investments in the oil and gas sector. According to the United Nations World Tourism Organization (UNWTO), tourism is responsible for 14% of Egypt's foreign currency earnings.

On the upside, several countries have lifted their travel bans on Egypt, with Japan and Belgium being among the latest to do so. During the past Eid holiday, one of the major Cairo hotels had a 97% occupancy rate, according to the Signet Institute.

At the recent Euromoney conference, officials and the private sector sent out a solidly unified message of stability and growth as a means of promoting investment into the country.

"We took the base year of 2010, because it was a good year ... where we almost received 15 million tourists and generated an income of $12.5 billion," Tourism Minister Hesham Zaazou told attendees. "It's more than double the Suez Canal is giving the Egyptian economy, at least until now," which is a little more than $5 billion annually.

He says Egypt is looking to double this, reaching 25-30 million tourists and generating around $25 billion in revenue.

"If news is quiet politically, if there are no more demonstrations, then it is likely that tourism numbers will begin to recover," Blair told Mada Masr. "After the Luxor attacks in 1996, it took about two years for tourism to recover, and it is normal that recovery takes time."

But in late September, there were a series of explosions, including one outside the Foreign Ministry — in the heart of Cairo — bringing the security situation in the capital back into question.

Before this, the UNWTO had foreseen a recovery, but qualified this by saying that it's difficult to predict the evolution of the political landscape and the health of the global economy. They put growth between 0% and 5% in the Middle East during 2014.

"Egypt is and will continue to be one of the most important tourism destinations worldwide, thanks to its extraordinary, longstanding history and cultural legacy, factors which will ensure that it remains a privileged destination," an UNWTO official wrote by email. "While uncertainty currently remains, we know that tourism in Egypt and elsewhere has been able to resist external shocks, adapt to changes and continue to grow dramatically over the long term. In fact, the past has proven that Egypt has an extraordinary capacity for growth and resilience."

Things are looking up

Mohannad Khedr, owner of a large resort in Sharm El-Sheikh, agrees that conditions are looking better.

"After Ramadan, tourists started coming back," he says. "With embassies removing travel bans and Egypt not being in all the headlines, overshadowed by incidents in Ukraine and Ferguson as well as ISIS, most Europeans are coming back. August was very good and September, October and November are looking bright."

The tourism minister says that arrivals were down 23% from January to June of this year, but in the past two months alone, Egypt witnessed significant interest again. He adds that the flow is mainly to for "one product, which is the Red Sea and South Sinai." He also stresses that the quality of service needs to be significantly upgraded.

Zaazou says that Egypt needs to work on promoting the north coast as the next premier destination after the Red Sea. "We are going to compete very strongly as a destination for our Mediterranean coast," he says. "We have unrivaled product in that area."

He notes that there is good access to the north coast, with four airports. Egypt is also working on an open skies policy for all airports except Cairo, which he said is restricted because of issues the national carrier EgyptAir is facing.

On the marketing side, Zaazou describes the strategy as a "push and pull," working with partners, cooperating with the private sector as well as co-marketing initiatives, being present at trade fairs, and giving incentives for airlines to move into Egypt.

The ministry is also working with an international public relations firm to change the perception of Egypt. "We are selling a dream, we're selling a perception. If the perception is positive, people will come."

Still, many of the factors affecting tourism are out of the ministry's hands, and until safety and stability are truly felt in Egypt, little can be done to help recovery along.

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In Argentina, A Visit To World's Highest Solar Energy Park

With loans and solar panels from China, the massive solar park has been opened a year and is already powering the surrounding areas. Now the Chinese supplier is pushing for an expansion.

960,000 solar panels have been installed at the Cauchari park

Silvia Naishtat

CAUCHARI — Driving across the border with Chile into the northwest Argentine department of Susques, you may spot what looks like a black mass in the distance. Arriving at a 4,000-meter altitude in the municipality of Cauchari, what comes into view instead is an assembly of 960,000 solar panels. It is the world's highest photovoltaic (PV) park, which is also the second biggest solar energy facility in Latin America, after Mexico's Aguascalientes plant.

Spread over 800 hectares in an arid landscape, the Cauchari park has been operating for a year, and has so far turned sunshine into 315 megawatts of electricity, enough to power the local provincial capital of Jujuy through the national grid.

It has also generated some $50 million for the province, which Governor Gerardo Morales has allocated to building 239 schools.

Abundant sunshine, low temperatures

The physicist Martín Albornoz says Cauchari, which means "link to the sun," is exposed to the best solar radiation anywhere. The area has 260 days of sunshine, with no smog and relatively low temperatures, which helps keep the panels in optimal conditions.

Its construction began with a loan of more than $331 million from China's Eximbank, which allowed the purchase of panels made in Shanghai. They arrived in Buenos Aires in 2,500 containers and were later trucked a considerable distance to the site in Cauchari . This was a titanic project that required 1,200 builders and 10-ton cranes, but will save some 780,000 tons of CO2 emissions a year.

It is now run by 60 technicians. Its panels, with a 25-year guarantee, follow the sun's path and are cleaned twice a year. The plant is expected to have a service life of 40 years. Its choice of location was based on power lines traced in the 1990s to export power to Chile, now fed by the park.

Chinese engineers working in an office at the Cauchari park


Chinese want to expand

The plant belongs to the public-sector firm Jemse (Jujuy Energía y Minería), created in 2011 by the province's then governor Eduardo Fellner. Jemse's president, Felipe Albornoz, says that once Chinese credits are repaid in 20 years, Cauchari will earn the province $600 million.

The Argentine Energy ministry must now decide on the park's proposed expansion. The Chinese would pay in $200 million, which will help install 400,000 additional panels and generate enough power for the entire province of Jujuy.

The park's CEO, Guillermo Hoerth, observes that state policies are key to turning Jujuy into a green province. "We must change the production model. The world is rapidly cutting fossil fuel emissions. This is a great opportunity," Hoerth says.

The province's energy chief, Mario Pizarro, says in turn that Susques and three other provincial districts are already self-sufficient with clean energy, and three other districts would soon follow.

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