It’s time for the British Government to change its travel advisory on Egypt
In October 2015 a Russian charter flight, Metrojet 9268, en route for St Petersburg from the Egyptian beach resort of Sharm el Sheikh, exploded over the Sinai desert in Egypt. All 224 passengers and crew were killed. In the wake of the tragedy, most countries with significant tourism to the resort, including Russia, Germany, and the United Kingdom put in place travel advisories banning travel to the area. The result: an instant halt to tourism activity, jobs at risk, and now, one year on, a population vulnerable to radicalisation.
Travel advisories have long been problematic for the Travel & Tourism sector. On the one hand, it is, of course, imperative that the safety and security of visitors is the primary consideration. On the other hand, advisories are often vague, not geographically specific (so a whole country might be blacklisted when in fact only a small part of one city is affected) and out of date. When tourism is a significant economic activity in the country or region, then a badly written or out of date travel advisory can have far reaching impacts.
The World Tourism Organisation (UNWTO) has, over the years, invested much time and energy in educating governments about the unintended impacts of travel advisories and has developed specific guidelines on travel advisories and the use of geo-referencing to ensure that they are location and time specific. However, there are still many cases where they are not listened to.
And one such case at the moment is the UK ban on flights to Sharm el Sheikh and the associated travel advisory.
Egypt’s tourism product is one of the most well-known and attractive of North Africa — from the temples in Luxor, to cruising on the Nile, to the beaches of Sharm el Sheikh, and of course the Pyramids at Giza. At its peak in 2010, Egypt received 14.7 million visitors who directly contributed $20.6 billion to the economy, with 1.6 million jobs (nearly 7%) directly in Travel & Tourism. If you look at the knock-on impacts, in 2010 17% of the country’s GDP and 15% of employment was down to tourism.
The Arab Spring uprising in 2011 had a dire effect. Tourist arrivals plummeted to 9.8 million and 400,000 tourism jobs were lost. And although things looked up in 2012, ongoing tensions in the country and the region meant that by 2015 tourism had levelled out at around the 10 million mark, with just over a million people directly employed in the sector.
The Metrojet crash in October 2015 has been the biggest test yet. The incident happened in the middle of the peak season, and had an immediate impact as countries recalled their citizens and banned flights to Sharm el Sheikh. Country-wide visitors were down nearly 30% compared to the same period the year before. And data for the beginning of 2016 suggests levels are nearly 50% down.
WTTC forecasts that by the end of 2016 there will be half a million less jobs in tourism than there were in 2010.
Islamic state claimed responsibility for the incident, and stories emerged of significant failings in security at Sharm el Sheikh airport. The Egyptian authorities have since employed British security company Control Risks to analyse and address security gaps, and following the improvements both the Russian and German governments have lifted the ban on flights.
However, the UK ban remains. And in terms of impact, the UK is the market that matters. In 2010, 10% of all visitors to Egypt were from the UK, and the resorts of Sharm el Sheikh would pull in around 9,000 British visitors a week. Less than a fifth of this number of British tourists are expected in 2016.
The Chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Egypt, Sir Gerald Howarth MP, wrote to Prime Minister Theresa May in September this year, following a visit to the region and confirmation from the Department of Transport that security at the airport was up to scratch, urging her to review the ban on flights to Sharm el Sheikh. But she has made no such move. In the meantime, all British tour operators have removed their inventory for the resort in 2017.
This means another year of reduced visitor numbers, another year of uncertainty, and another year of job losses.
For this is not about tourists, and it’s not really about the economy of Egypt, it’s about those thousands of people, mainly young men, for whom working in tourism is the only option.
And in the absence of tourists and the jobs they provide, these young men are seeking out other ways. For many the route to take is north, across the Mediterranean and to seek a better life in Europe. Already in 2016, 3800 people have died in this endeavour. Less risky, perhaps is to look to radical Islam and the opportunities it may bring. And reports suggest more and more are taking this way out.
If the post-Brexit vote UK government is keen to stem the flow of migrants to its shores, and address the problems of radicalisation, then it could do worse than to start by allowing its airlines to fly to Sharm el Sheikh, as Russia and Germany already have.