ASWAN, Egypt (Reuters) - The newly launched Al-Hambra cruise ship sailed only twice on the Nile before President Hosni Mubarak was toppled in February and has been docked since then on the banks of the river, its plush fittings gathering dust awaiting the return of tourists.
Aswan, the site of majestic pharaonic ruins and one of the most famous stops on Egypt’s Nile cruises, has few of the tourists who normally throng its tree-lined river banks. Instead, dozens of ships are moored waiting for customers.
Of the more than 300 cruise liners usually touring this section of the world’s longest river, part of a tourist industry that is a major source of revenue in Egypt, not more than 40 are still setting sail, operators say.
“I’m keeping the boat open just to pay salaries, but not to make profit because that’s not going to happen anytime soon,” Albert Zakaria, manager of one of the operating cruises, Beau Soleil, moored behind the deserted ship, told Reuters.
Like many, Zakaria accepts he has to pay the bills and salaries even without revenues, so as to be ready once tourists return. He is not sure when that will be.
Tourist numbers have plummeted, dealing a blow to the millions of Egyptians whose livelihoods depend on the 14 million or more visitors who once came to Egypt annually, providing one in eight jobs in a country beset by high unemployment.
The number of tourists visiting Egypt dropped by more than a third in the second quarter of 2011 compared to last year. Some 2.2 million people visited Egypt in the second quarter of this year, down from 3.5 million in the same period in 2010.
In Aswan, in the far south of the country, high season doesn’t usually start until fall when the weather is cooler.
Some tourists are returning but many canceled after 25 people were killed in a fresh burst of violence in Cairo, when Christians protesting about an attack on a church near Aswan clashed with police.
“Tourism is dead. Thank God we still have jobs but every time we think it will get better, some catastrophe hits us,” said Moustafa Ahmed, a hotel waiter, lamenting that tensions that erupted this week started over a row in the village of Marinab, just 150 km (90 miles) north.
Tourism is Egypt’s top foreign currency earner, accounting for over a tenth of gross domestic product. The Tourism Ministry has said most arrivals now head to beach destinations.
The hotel occupancy rate in Aswan is now hovering around 15 percent while cruise ships are at 30 percent, said Abdel Nasser Saber, head of the Tour Guide’s Syndicate of Aswan. They would normally expect to be full or even over-booked.
The tourism sector has been suffering since the uprising that ousted Mubarak in February, with brief months of relative relief, but matters won’t improve, residents in Aswan say, until Egypt is stable and finished with its transition.
“This is a stark improvement from before. There have been long months when there was no one at all. Any clashes and spilled blood is going to keep the state of tourism like this,” he said. “We have to take the effort to calm potential tourists and get these elections over and done with.”
Egypt’s ruling military council has scheduled parliamentary elections to start on November 28 for a staggered four-months-long vote but no date for the presidential vote has been set yet and serious haggling continues between opposition groups and the military over the process for transition.
Frequent protests and labor strikes, an eruption of sectarian tension and a lack of evident security is the complaint of many of the sector’s employees.
“If you drop a dark spot into a glass of milk, you probably won’t want to drink it. There has been no accident involving a tourist, but not everyone is ready to put themselves at risk in a country going through transition,” said Maged Nader, manager of the Sonesta Cruise boat.
“With poor management by authorities and the continuity of chaos, a lot of people are losing faith in the revolution,” Nader said, whose boat is now luckily running with 60 percent occupancy after Sonesta Cruise merged its lines.
Wide-spread disappointment among regular Egyptians with the way the military is handling the transition is also giving rise to concerns that civilians won’t be taking over power soon.
“The idea of military rule scares tourists. Most of these worries will continue until the presidential vote and civilians take over,” said Farid Farah, General Manager of Nubian Travel, warning “when tourism stops, everything does with it.”
Tourists who have come say they aren’t that worried.
“My friends told me not to go when they found out I was coming to Egypt but I told them I see no reason not to come here. Egyptians need our help and this is one way to do it,” said Carrisse Young, 32-year-old American tourist.
“I haven’t felt unsafe at all. Everyone is very friendly and we are having a fantastic time,” said Young, who arrived the day after this week’s clashes. She is like many tourists in the city, who were tempted by cheap rates and bargain prices.
Budget tourists don’t bring in the same revenues, however. Tourist guides say they are less interested in expanding their travel plans and don’t always tip well. Guides complain they get few customers. Some work once a month, if at all.
Any staff that join hotels and other places of business during high season have lost their source of income. For many more, their employers can’t always pay their salaries.
“Salaries are sometimes late, because I pay when I have the money. We are all patient because there is nothing we can do at this point but the problem is we can’t project when this dry spell will end,” Beau Soleil’s Zakaria said.
Tourism Minister Mounir Fakhry Abdel Nour said in April he saw a rebound by the last quarter of the year, even if it still meant a 25 percent fall in revenues from 2010.
But that would be if there were no disruptions, workers in the sector say. After Sunday’s clashes, nine of Zakaria’s booked cabins canceled their reservations.
Labor strikes and frequent protests are not popular here.
“People have to calm down and let the country regain its strength. Our economy is collapsing and if we keep going like this, we will have nothing — no state — left to fight for,” said Bahaa Rabiey Mohamed, 26-year old salesman in Aswan’s empty bazaar, where he now gets little or no business.
Ayman Tahano, a 42-year-old working with a free traders association for the Aswan bazaar echoed the sentiment.
“All these protests for pay hikes are absurd. They are taking all the money the government has and without working for it. They waited 30 years — can’t they wait six more months?” he complained, referring to the three decades Mubarak was in power.
“I told my children’s school teacher who is striking for a higher wage that if this keeps up, I think we are going to have to rob them because they are getting cash from the government while I’m sure not getting any income from anywhere,” Tahano said, bursting into a laugh.
Editing by Sonya Hepinstall