Tour Operators Watch Closely After U.S. Embassy Attacks in Libya, Egypt
By David Cogswell
September 12, 2012 9:46 PM
Tour operators are keeping a close watch on unfolding events after attacks on U.S. embassies took place Tuesday in both Libya and Egypt. American intelligence looked for links between the attacks, but from the standpoint of tourism, the two were very different.
In Libya, attacks on the U.S. Embassy in Benghazi led to the killings of four American diplomats. The killings took place in the aftermath of a harsh war in which the U.S. was a major participant. Only a few American tour programs have been offered to Libya in the last decade, and those were offered at rare moments when relations between the U.S. and Libya seemed to be warming. But those periods were all short-lived and were soon interrupted by diplomatic tensions of one sort or another.
Egypt, on the other hand, is historically one of the all-time favorite destinations of American tourists, and as a result a favorite market for tour operators. Egypt’s economy is acutely dependent on tourism. The country recently endured a tourism drought of a year and a half following the Arab Spring uprising and the pro-democracy demonstrations that led to an overthrow of the government and the establishment of a new democratically chosen government.
After the successful elections in Egypt last June, tourism was starting to flow back into the country. Mohamed Hegezy, director-consul of the Egyptian Tourist Authority in New York, reported a 20 percent rise in tourism, two-thirds of the way back to 2010 levels before the drop-off. Tour operators have expressed cautious optimism that tourism in Egypt was returning to normal. A serious incident that would scare away tourism was the last thing they needed.
In Cairo, the U.S. Embassy was stormed by Egyptians protesting a film by an American producer that mocked the Prophet Muhammad, the founder and central figure of the Islamic faith. The film portrayed Muhammad as a womanizing fraud.
The proximity in time of the Egypt and Libya incidents was unfortunate for Egypt, but as things calm down it is becoming increasingly clear that the incidents were fundamentally different in spite of apparent similarities. The New York Times reported, “Initial accounts of the assault in Benghazi were attributed to popular anger over what was described as an American-made video that lampooned the Prophet Muhammad, which had been publicized by Egyptian media and led to a mob protest at the United States Embassy protest in Cairo on Tuesday. But administration officials in Washington said the attack in Libya may have been plotted in advance. While the protesters in Cairo appeared to be genuinely outraged over the anti-Islam video, the attackers in Benghazi were armed with mortars and rocket-propelled grenades. Officials said it was possible that an organized group had either been waiting for an opportunity to exploit like the protests over the video or perhaps even generated the protests as a cover for their attack.”
Mohamed Hegezy of the Egyptian Tourist Authority in New York told TravelPulse that the protest in Cairo was “a peaceful demonstration. There was no violence. There was maybe some fear that it would turn to violence, but that has not happened. The demonstrators are starting to retreat now and it’s getting quiet.”
Hegezy emphasized the difference between the incidents in Libya and Egypt. “It was not like what happened in Libya,” he said. “It’s a totally different situation. Cabinet members are taking steps to maintain security for all foreign tourists.”
After initial concern, tour operators reverted to cautious optimism. Ady Gelber, chairman of IsramWorld, said, “Unfortunately at this time, it is a little too early to tell [how it will affect tourism]. Perhaps by next week, we will be able to advise you more accurately.”
Pamela Lassers, director of media relations for Abercrombie & Kent, said, “A&K Egypt has advised us that this was an isolated incident which resulted in no injuries and did not involve any tourists. We currently have one group departure on the ground in Egypt and everything is going as planned. I checked with our destination specialists and we received only a handful of calls this morning about Egypt, mostly from travel agents who have clients scheduled to depart in the next few weeks. We reassure them that we are closely monitoring the situation and ask them to please keep in mind that our guides are locals, familiar with local customs and geography, and keenly aware of any changes in the political climate which might create cause for concern.”
A&K’s president, Phil Otterson, expressed confidence. “I am betting that this is going to be okay, not just for now in Egypt, but for the mid-to-long-term future as well,” he said.
Ashish Sanghrajka, president of Big Five Tours, said, “For the most part we are taking a wait-and-see approach to Egypt with guests who are traveling there. The embassy incident is very unfortunate. There are so many moving parts to this that operators need to fully understand the whole issue. Egyptians want tourism to return as bad as we do.”
Melissa McKee, U.S. marketing and P.R. specialist for G Adventures, said, “We've received a few calls from passengers regarding the current situation in Cairo and have spoken with our local office and our chief experience officers on the ground there. The incident does not affect the safety of our travelers or our tours as the demonstration is isolated to the U.S. Embassy, and our travelers are not in the immediate area. All our travelers are safe and accounted for. Our tours are operating in the area without any deviation from the intended itineraries. We have G Adventures representatives in the area, and will continue to monitor developments. It is early to tell whether this will affect overall bookings or inquiries by Americans wishing to travel to Egypt.”
Elie Sidawi, chairman of Sunny Land Tours, said, “The protest yesterday over the infamous slander video about Prophet Muhammad did not cause harm or disrespect to our clients currently in Egypt, and all tourist attractions are operating as normal. Sunny Land Tours has an open line of communications with our operations department in Egypt and we have been monitoring the situation constantly.”
Ronen Paldi, president of Ya’lla Tours, said his company’s clients in Egypt were not affected. “We choose to spend the nights in the Giza area and not in downtown, where the U.S. Embassy is, and where many demonstrations are. It is too early to determinate the effect of yesterday’s events on tourism to Egypt, I can only share that we launched a new program and so far the feedback and reception on the industry here has been terrific.”