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Update: In Egypt, a Setback for Tourism Amid Signs of Hope

By PATRICK SCOTT
May 23, 2016

LUXOR, Egypt — After five and a half years of misery, the people in Egypt’s depressed tourism industry had reason for a bit of hope.

The United Nations World Tourism Organization on May 11 chose Luxor to host two of its major gatherings later this year, potentially drawing 400 to 600 people and plenty of attention to this ancient city along the Nile River. It offered Egypt a chance to receive some much-needed positive public relations.

Egyptian tourism officials had quickly laid claim to the title “world tourism capital for 2016” (though that’s not actually an official designation of the United Nations group) and hatched plans for filling empty hotel rooms, packing Pharaonic monuments and convincing people it’s safe to go to Egypt.

Then, in an instant, event planning veered into crisis management after an EgyptAir jetliner plunged into the Mediterranean last Thursday, killing all 66 on board.

It is a position that Egypt, perhaps more than other countries in recent years, has found itself in time and again — blindsided by yet another crisis and dreading another blow to its vital tourism sector.

For many reasons, the world has become a riskier place. And at tourism destinations — from Paris and Istanbul to Brazil and Phuket Island, Thailand — people have come to realize that their fortunes can change in an instant because of a man-made or natural disaster.

So, more than ever, industry leaders are learning crisis management and communications to deal with a terrorist attack, an outbreak of disease or an earthquake. Governments and businesses are stepping up their abilities to increase security measures quickly, and destinations are devising marketing strategies to persuade tourists to return, using the same social media that amplified news of a crisis in the first place.

The locations are also aided by some notable trends, including a public awareness that threats, risks and crises “are global; there is nowhere safe and it can happen anywhere, anytime,” said Prof. Dimitrios Buhalis, head of the tourism department at Bournemouth University in England.

In addition, he said, “there is an element of solidarity that is emerging in the marketplace that, if a particular place is suffering for a particular reason, we need to support this place.”

A recent study from the World Travel and Tourism Council showed that some destinations can be surprisingly quick to recover in the wake of a crisis. On average, locations that suffered a terrorist attack saw their tourist visits rebound to precrisis levels within 13 months, while locations hit by environmental disaster or political turmoil took about 24 to 27 months, respectively, to recover.

The study found that the number of arrivals in Spain after the 2004 train bombings in Madrid recovered within weeks and that after the 2005 bombings in London on subway trains and a double-decker bus “there was no notable impact on tourist arrivals to the U.K. at all.” The research, which looked at 38 incidents from 2001 to 2014 and did not include Sept. 11, also found that it took Thailand 14 months for its visits to fully rebound after the 2004 tsunami.

“What increasingly has been observed is that not only is tourism vulnerable but it’s also resilient,” said Xiang “Robert” Li, a professor of tourism marketing at Temple University in Philadelphia.

The problem with Egypt, Professor Buhalis said, is that it “has had more than its fair share of problems.”

Indeed, Egypt’s tourism sector is far from the record levels seen in 2010, when overnight visits hit 14.1 million, according to data from the United Nations World Tourism Organization. Tourism plummeted after an uprising ousted Egypt’s 30-year dictator in 2011. The industry saw signs of recovery in 2012 and 2014, but then another uprising in 2013 that installed an increasingly authoritarian government, and the explosion of a Russian jet over Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula in 2015, wiped out any gains for those years.

Last year — which also brought the embarrassing tragedy of eight Mexican tourists being mistakenly gunned down by Egyptian security forces in a desert in September — overnight visits sank to 9.1 million.

Because Egypt was in trouble, the member states of the United Nations tourism organization’s executive council voted to hold year-end meetings in Luxor as a vote of confidence.

“They all understood that Egypt is important and they wanted to show they were standing by it,” Taleb Rifai, the secretary-general of the group, said in an interview in the days after the May vote.

On Monday, the organization reaffirmed that Luxor will host the meetings, Oct. 30 to Nov. 3. The May 19 crash of the EgyptAir jet, flying from Paris to Cairo, had some people in the industry wondering if there was a plot against Egypt, especially after EgyptAir was in the headlines in March when a man wearing a fake explosives vest hijacked one of its domestic flights to Cyprus. There were no injuries.

“Every two months something happens in Egypt. Why?” asked Mohamed Osman, head of the Luxor travel agents association.

“We get ready for shocks like this and we prepare our lives for this,” he said. Still, he added: “We will never give up. We know that Egypt will never die.”

A week earlier, before the crash, he had been working on plans with the governor of Luxor, Mohamed Badr, for leveraging the United Nations meetings, including possibly a performance of “Aida,” Verdi’s opera set in Egypt, at Luxor.

Mr. Badr, in an interview in his office, laid out his plans for opening monuments at night on the west bank of the Nile like Hatshepsut and the Valley of the Kings, and spoke of his dream for a cable car across the river. But he knew that the most important challenge was convincing foreigners that Egypt and Luxor are safe. To that end, he showed off two large monitors receiving live feeds from a network of security cameras throughout the city.

“What we are facing is the changing of the perception outside,” he said.

Egypt’s tourism officials say they have been taking the steps necessary to increase security at places like airports and historic sites, and they insist that Egypt is safe.

“I think that the fact that we are meeting there reveals that we have confidence in the country overall,” said Sandra Carvao, chief of communications for the United Nations world tourism group.

Despite the prolonged slump, she said it was important to acknowledge the annual increases in visitors to Egypt in 2012 and 2014.

“When you look at it there’s a capacity to actually recover that is relatively strong,” she said, “even when the situation is complicated.”