A year and a half has passed since the downing of the Russian plane in Sinai, but the Russian government is still preventing its citizens from traveling to Egypt, the closest, cheapest and favorite tourist destination for Russians.
During this period, the Egyptian government introduced an airport security system based on the demands of the Russian side and introduced everything new and modern available in the world. This was witnessed, followed and examined by the Russian experts who traveled to Egypt dozens of times to see their list of demands implemented. But, despite the understandings reached between the two sides on the security agreement which is soon to be signed, nothing has really happened.
The return of Russian tourism to Egypt became a clear issue to the public and to industry specialists in Egypt. Everyone has realized that the issue is not about securing the airports, aircrafts or tourist security, but rather about the two countries' differences when it comes to certain other economic matters and matters of Egyptian sovereignty.
Tourism has transformed from an entertainment service to a political bargaining chip with which the Russian government presses its Egyptian counterpart to reap particular benefits. This was confirmed when Russian flights landed in Ataturk just hours after the bombings targetting the airport; Russian tourists disembarked into the seemingly volatile country, yet we don’t find the Russian government preventing travel to these areas. Therefore, the issue of the resuming of flights has other, less obvious dimensions to it.
Mostafa Khalil, head of the Egyptian Federation of Tourism Chambers and an expert on the Russian tourism market, told me that one of the fatal mistakes Egypt's tourism industry made during the past decades is that it relied on just three or four export markets for tourism: Russia, Germany, Britain and Italy. These markets accounted for about 80% of the volume of incoming tourism; Egypt's tourism turned from a service to political leverage to be manipulated by these countries' governmentsin times of crisis.
It is necessary to change the Egyptian tourist map now, so that Egypt has tourist markets from all over the world; a share of any market shouldn't exceed 10% of the volume of incoming tourism to Egypt. Then we can get to work in new countries.
Khalil recently met a large number of Russian tour operators in Moscow, most of whom had the desire to return to work in Egypt's tourist destinations. Their reasons were that Egypt contributes to the development of Russia and not only itself, tourists can save a great deal of money compared to travelling to Russia's neighboring countries and Egypt is a cheap destination for them. However, the decision is not in their hands; it is in the hands of the Russian government -- and President Vladimir Putin personally.
But this exported market is not going to be the same again, so other markets need to be searched for and worked out, such as Central Asian countries like Georgia, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan and Moldova, as this region exports 3 million tourists to countries like Egypt in every way -- but currently exceeds our tourism potential.
I told Khalil that these markets are far away and there are no direct flights. He said any move in this direction needs a consensus and a joint action by the Ministries of Tourism and Civil Aviation and private sector tourism. Egypt has 202,000 hotel rooms, so you need 1,500 flights to come per week to achieve an annual hotel capacity of 70 percent -- this requires regular flights between these countries and Egypt. In order for these lines to succeed and be profitable, they must be supported by the Tourism Ministry in case of losses, as well hotels and tourism companies that benefit from the arrival of tourists.