Attacks on foreigners ruining Egyptian tourism

December 17, 1992|By New York Times News Service

CAIRO, Egypt -- The tourist industry, a bulwark of th Egyptian economy, is in danger of collapse after a series of attacks by Islamic militants against foreign tourists, including one in November that killed a Briton.

The decline is being compared to that during the Persian Gulf War when Europeans and Americans virtually stopped traveling to the Middle East.

If tourism does not recover soon, the hold of President Hosni Mubarak's administration will be further eroded. Already it is struggling to cope with rising unemployment, a severe housing shortage and a huge public sector that has become a drain on the budget.

The tourist decline will push hundreds of thousands of people out of work, swelling the ranks of the dispossessed, and will accentuate the state's impotence in the face of the burgeoning militant movement.

Tourism is Egypt's largest source of foreign revenues and before the attacks began two months ago was predicted to bring in $4 billion this year.

The Ministry of Tourism contends that tourism has fallen by 40 percent since the attacks, but tour operators and hotel managers in Cairo and Luxor report a decline closer to 60 or 70 percent. They worry that the crisis may be prolonged enough to do lasting damage to their businesses.

"The [Persian] Gulf war had a beginning and an end," said Ramzi Gargour, managing director of Sunshine Tours. "We knew when the war was over things would return to normal. But here, even if they catch all the suspects, there may still be one fanatic 15-year-old boy who will be willing to machine-gun a boatload of tourists. The mood is gloomy."

The British, American and German embassies have all warned their citizens to exercise caution when traveling in Egypt and to avoid the southern cities of Asyut and Dairut, the area where gunmen twice attacked tourist buses in the last two months with automatic weapons, wounding five Germans and killing a Briton.

Islamic fundamentalists announced at the end of August that they would attack foreign visitors in southern, or Upper, Egypt until the government ended a crackdown that included stationing thousands of troops and police officers in villages and towns where the fundamentalists are active.

The fundamentalists, who say they are fighting to create an Islamic state, criticize tourists for being disrespectful to Islam. They also denounce the government for what they say is its policy of building luxury hotels for foreigners rather than public housing, schools and clinics for poor Egyptians.

President Mubarak, who met with foreign journalists yesterday, said that while he could not guarantee there would be no further attacks against tourists, security forces had "crushed" the militant movement in recent roundups.

But the campaign against tourists could be stepped up after the deployment of 12,000 troops and police officers in the Cairo neighborhood of Imbaba last week. The house-to-house searches and nightly curfew, which for the first time has brought the campaign against the militants to Cairo, has so far resulted in the roundup of some 600 militants.

Egyptian officials say they are bracing for assaults against foreigners in Cairo and have provided additional security at sites frequented by tourists, such as the pyramids at the edge of the city.

Cruise lines, in an ominous move, have begun to dry-dock boats. Dozens of charter and commercial flights have been canceled, hotels are laying off workers and tour companies are releasing guides.

In Cairo, six of the major hotels, including the Marriott and the Hilton, have occupancy rates of around 50 percent. At this time last year, they had nearly 100 percent occupancy.

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