Egypt unrest rattles tourists

An army officer who joined the anti-government protesters tears up a picture of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, downtown Cairo on Saturday.  

Foreign tourists and Egyptians flocked to Cairo’s main airport on Saturday, scrambling to find flights out of the country as days of often violent protests that forced the resignation of the government showed few signs of abating.

Israeli carrier El Al was trying to arrange a special flight on Saturday to take roughly 200 Israeli tourists out of the country, a Cairo International Airport official said, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to brief the media. Israel’s embassy in Egypt declined to comment.

The efforts came as between 1,500 and 2,000 travellers were at the airport’s two main departure terminals, most without reservations and frantic to find any available seats of outbound flights. But the bid could prove difficult, if not futile, as some European and U.S. airlines began to announce cancellations or suspensions of service to Cairo and Egypt’s national carrier was said to be experiencing lengthy delays.

EgyptAir had suspended overnight departures on Friday because of a government-imposed curfew. The carrier had yet to take a similar step Saturday, though the expansion of that curfew to between 4 p.m. and 8 a.m. made it increasingly unlikely that travellers would be able to head to the airport for evening flights.

German carrier Lufthansa said it had cancelled both of its two scheduled flights to Cairo on Saturday. Air Berlin cancelled one flight to Cairo. U.S. carrier Delta Airlines, which flies direct to Cairo from the U.S., said service to and from Cairo would be “indefinitely suspended as a result of civil unrest.”

The violence that gripped Cairo, the Egyptian capital, and several other cities over the past few days has presented President Hosni Mubarak with the biggest challenge of his nearly 30-year rule. The protesters are demanding his ouster and that measures be taken to address rampant poverty and corruption, the rising cost of living and the growing disparity in income distribution.

But the protests threaten to undercut one of Egypt’s key foreign revenue generators - tourism, which accounts for about 11 percent of Egypt’s gross domestic product. Tourism brought in over $9 billion for Egypt in the first nine months of 2010 and $10.8 billion the year before.

Egypt’s military closed off access to the pyramids in Giza - with tanks and armoured personnel carriers sealing off the site on the Giza Plateau. The area is normally packed with tourists and is a main draw for those who come to Cairo.

The move - aimed at ensuring the tourists’ security - was likely to be seen as another worrying indicator in a nation that until earlier this week had been a pillar of stability in a trouble-prone region.

Officials said that about 40 percent of the throngs of travellers at the airport were Egyptians, with the rest Westerners and other Arabs. It remained unclear what options were available to them given the limited flights.

EgyptAir flights were running late, in some cases because crew were unable to reach the airport, or were worried about the drive to the facility, said the airport official.

The United States on Friday had cautioned its citizens to avoid nonessential travel to Egypt and urged those already in the country to remain at home or in their hotels. The calls were echoed by other Western government, with Germany’s foreign office on Saturday calling on its citizens to avoid travelling to Cairo, Alexandria and Suez - the three cities hardest hit by the protests.

So far, the protests appear to have mainly affected travel plans to Cairo, while the Red Sea resorts favoured by the Europeans and Russians who make up the majority of foreign tourists to Egypt.

Two of the biggest German tourism agencies, TUI and Thomas Cook, gave their customers the option to either cancel their trips to Egypt or to choose a different destination without incurring penalties.

A spokeswoman for Thomas Cook, Nina Kreke, said that so far there had not been any requests for cancellations.

Anja Braun, a spokeswoman for TUI, said that most German tourists were vacationing in resorts along the Red Sea where the situation was calm.

“Nobody has asked to return early to Germany,” Ms. Braun said, adding that while there had been a few cancelations and customers changing their travel destinations to other countries instead of Egypt, one could not say that there was a “wave of cancellations.”

Both TUI and Thomas Cook could not say how many tourists travel to Egypt every week with their agencies, but according to the German Travel Association some 1.2 million Germans vacation in Egypt every year.

Rene-Marc Chikli, president of the CETO association of French tour operators, said the group was suspending all departures this weekend for Egypt. Many travellers who are already in Egypt are being routed away from Cairo to see other destinations, such as Luxor, Aswan or the Red Sea, he told France Info radio.

France’s Foreign Ministry updated its website to advise travellers to Egypt to “postpone all non-urgent travel.” French citizens already in Egypt are advised to “limit their movements to what is strictly necessary and stay far away from crowds.”

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Printable version | Jan 18, 2022 9:35:52 PM |

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