CAIRO — Tayarah, 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.