Middle East

Egypt's tourism hit hard by ongoing unrest

Empty beach in Marsa Matrouh
Image caption Many tourists, especially from the West, are avoiding Egyptian beaches this year

When cocktail hour comes round in the Egyptian Mediterranean resort of al-Masr these days, there are no tourists to watch the soft darkness snuff out the iridescent turquoise of the sea.

Slinky music echoes a little eerily along deserted terraces; this is twilight in the twilight zone.

We were a party of three - the only guests in a 550-bedroom hotel.

The only arrivals from Europe this winter have been the migratory starlings which squeal and bustle deafeningly as they roost in the neatly-trimmed palm trees.

November on Egypt's northern coast is hardly peak season, of course, but the simple truth is that the television images of political violence in Cairo and Alexandria have put tourists off.

Holidaymakers like history - but they don't like finding themselves in the middle of it.

Catastrophic figures

Mohammad Hassin, one of the managers in the al-Masr hotel, supervised the 45-man team that made our breakfast.

Staff have been laid off and salaries cut. He admits that it's not a happy time in the Egyptian travel industry - but he hopes for better times to come when the political situation stabilises again.

"We work this year at about 40% capacity. We have the usual number of staff working here. Their wages are half the usual level. Things are so, so bad this year," Mr Hassin says.

He makes the point that the dramatic scenes of street unrest in February which made foreigners nervous didn't last - but the damage is done, nonetheless.

Tourism matters hugely to the Egyptian economy: this is a vital source of jobs and of hard currency.

And the country has been blessed by providence with beautiful coastlines to north and south and the extraordinary treasures of the ancient civilisation of the Pharaohs in between.

But none of that matters if tourists in Germany, Italy and the UK see pictures of rioting on TV and decide to go to Turkey instead.

And there's evidence that's what they did after the revolutionary upheaval in February.

Tourist numbers in March were down 60% on the same month in the previous year and tourist spending was down 66%.

They are catastrophic figures when the holiday industry accounts for more than 10% of Egypt's national income.

Salafist hopes

But, of course, if the tourist industry in Egypt is to recover, it will be in a new and democratic Egypt - and that may yet bring problems of its own.

A short distance along the coast from our hotel, we found the town of Marsa Matrouh - a conservative and religious place where black-robed women wear the veil.

Image caption Salafists are hoping to top the polls in the elections

A local hi-fi dealer advertises the power of a set of speakers by blasting verses of the Koran out into the high street at full volume.

In Matrouh, the centre of a governorate which relies heavily on tourism, religious candidates are expected to do well when the region finally gets to vote next week.

The leader of the local party of Salafists, Islam's puritan fundamentalists, told me he expects to top the polls.

If Jabr Awad Allah is right, that might spell bad news for the local holiday trade: he wants to ban booze and bikinis, and he believes in segregated beaches for men and women too.

Mr Awad Allah, a lawyer, is a thoughtful and personable man, who says Egyptians have a right to rule their own country as they please - exactly the same rights as the British, the French and the Americans enjoy in their countries.

"Of course we have to prohibit selling alcohol," he said.

"It's prohibited in the Koran, and it's my right as a Muslim to practise sharia in my country, in my home and in my community.

"The lack of alcohol and bikinis won't stop open-minded progressive people visiting. Alcohol is not essential to life - you don't die if you don't drink alcohol," Mr Awad Allah adds.

Manager's fears

I didn't have to travel far to find the other side of the argument.

Around the corner from the headquarters of the Salafist part in Matrouh is the Riviera Beach Hotel.

Potential customers shouldn't be deterred by the sight of the four tanks parked within 100 metres (yards) of the front door.

They are there to protect the nearby headquarters of the local council, although they do make for a disconcerting view from the hotel terrace.

Deputy manager Hossam al-Bana says the violent upheavals of 2011 have taken a toll on business. He's worried that any perception that Egypt was following its revolution with a sudden surge of legislation inspired by religious fervour would be a disaster.

"We're deeply afraid of the Islamic groups at the moment," he says.

"It's probable that they will come to power. They will ban alcohol, bikinis and the beach because on Islamic TV they say that's part of their plan.

"I've got no real problem with that - just not now, not in this political phase while we're building the country."

So the managers of Egypt's tourist trade have plenty to worry about as 2011 ends - but at least in deserted hotels like the al-Masr, they have time on their hands to do the worrying.

Getting the starlings back year after year is easy - getting those foreign tourists to return is going to be a lot harder.