It was important that Egypt put in a strong showing at this year’s ITB travel fair. The nation’s tourism industry has been reeling since several European countries enforced a travel ban to the Red Sea, dealing the destinations a crippling blow. But a few weeks ahead of the world’s largest travel and tourism convention, a number of the bans were lifted, propelling Egypt to participate aggressively and fly in a large delegation representing travel agencies, airlines and hotels.
“We were there to see and follow up on the latest decisions and strategies toward our destination, and we needed to present ourselves as being independent of tour operators,” says Hisham El Demery, Chairman of the Egyptian Tourism Promotion Board. “The German market was important for us because they lifted the travel ban on Egypt and particularly Sharm El-Sheikh a few weeks ago. Then there’s the Scandinavian market which is a very significant market for us and who also resumed flights. We had many meetings at ITB and the indications were very promising,” he adds.
Egyptian Tourism Promotion Chairman Hesham El Demery
We sit down with El Demery for his assessment of Egypt’s tourism industry and his recommendations on what needs to be done to bring the tourists back.
What are the different types of tourism Egypt is focusing on to kickstart a revival?
In our current situation we have to focus on the traditional markets in order to drive the wheel again. So although one of the main problems facing the country—and facing the tourism industry in particular—is that we are not diversifying or that we don’t offer the variety of products that we have, priority number one at the moment is to drive the traditional market: the classical Egypt and the beach holidays.
In parallel we need to introduce new types of tourism including medical, the Holy Family and MICE [meeting, incentive, conference and events]. This year we have introduced medical tourism . . . . Egypt succeeded last year in curing over 90% of hepatitis C patients worldwide. Across the world 1.2 million people received treatment and Egypt alone cured over 900,000—meaning that we cured over 85 percent of the patients worldwide. We encourage patients to come to Egypt to do the lab tests and stay in the hospital for just two nights and then to enjoy the diversity of our products for the remainder of their stay. There are specialty travel agents who are working on this type of tourism in Egypt. We’ve already started to launch some packages such as Cairo-Sharm, Cairo-Luxor and Cairo-Aswan.
How does the TDA work with the Ministry of Tourism to set these strategies?
Normally the Ministry of Tourism sets the strategy and outlines the products, then the private sector works on those. It’s definitely in coordination with the Ministry but basically we have to create the campaign and launch it in order to help them to promote the product.
The other product we’re pushing is the Holy Family trip. The Holy Family came to Egypt, settling for about three-and-a-half years and travelling across 32 locations around the country. What we’ve done is—and this project isn’t recent, we started it about two or three years ago—we picked eight locations in four cities and we readied them from the infrastructure perspective to receive the customers, clients and tourists. We don’t call it a religious tour but we’re offering it as part of our special tours, meaning that the visitor doesn’t have to visit all eight locations. So, for example, if he’s staying in Cairo he can pick up the visits in Cairo, if he’s in Upper Egypt he can go to Assiut or Minya.
On top of this we are really emphasizing that our country is ready to accommodate MICE. All these types of trips, whether medical, Holy Family or MICE, enjoy very high-spending customers, especially medical because the length of stay is quite high, over 10 days. The average spending per client is exclusive and they are repeat clients because they come for the medication two, three or four times. It’s a mixed type of clientele because normally the patient who is here and doesn’t come alone, he might come with the family or as part of a couple.
The take-home message at ITB has been that people are no longer fazed at global instability and will not hold back when it comes to travel. How is Egypt capitalizing on this change in mindset?
The tourism industry is a very sensitive industry. Normally stability in the sector comes after political, social and economic stability. No tourists come if there is violence—a country has to enjoy first, number one, political stability. For the past two or three years we’ve been living a new era of economic stability because we are observed by outsiders as having taken serious steps and actions to move forward toward economic recovery.
In front of the whole world and in front of the international community we’re enjoying a very stable political situation and have become a strong ally for the community. Socially and internally things are really stable and all this helps the tourists to come back.
How are we managing to convey this sense of stability?
We do it by letting others talk on our behalf. So the celebrities and famous people who visited Egypt recently, these are ambassadors to the world. We can’t keep saying Egypt is safe, Egypt is beautiful, Egypt is clean, Egypt is a very hospitable country—no. We will never change the perception if the others, the international celebrities, are not saying this on our behalf. That’s why we are really investing in every single celebrity. We are investing in press, familiarization and educational trips, inviting people to come to experience themselves the kinds of service, facilities and infrastructure we are enhancing. We’re especially targeting people coming for the second and third time so they can see that we are moving into a new stage and are really improving. Every single advertisement about the country helps to enhance the tourism industry.
Last year’s flotation has meant that Egypt has become a very attractive destination to international travelers. Could this affect the way Egypt is attempting to position itself as a tourist destination?
This positioning will not be created or invented in a year—it’s more of a long-term vision. Egypt has been perceived as a charter destination, not an exclusive destination, with some 90% of our business depending on charter flights and tour operators. This type of business is considered the lowest rate. We are working on a very comprehensive plan in order to diversify our product but this will not come in one year though we should start experiencing new additions soon.
By enhancing our infrastructure, we can raise our rates. Unfortunately in the past few years we were not really in a position to emphasize this and were working on the very traditional mass production type of business. But now by having new products and are targeting the customer directly rather than depending only on tour operators. That’s not to say we’re neglecting the tour operator business or their role; they are strategic partners on the different markets. However, we need to address our messages directly to the customer as equally as we do through the operator because there is a type of customer for each.
It is true that Egypt has become very affordable to many customers—many tourists were not able to come the country and I believe shortly we will see a surge in numbers in the coming year, especially that we really need to gain what we lost over the past few years.
Do you believe Egypt has the sufficient infrastructure to accommodate the growth?
Definitely. The highest number of visitors we ever had was 14.3 million. We have 200-210,000 rooms all over country so I believe that we are able to accommodate up to 17 million visitors. But infrastructure is not only about rooms. It’s about airports, fleets and aircraft, airports and facilities, and I believe the formation of the Supreme Council of Tourism is the right step to deal with tourism as an industry. Such a council, which is headed by the president of the country himself and includes 12 ministers and investors, brings all the stakeholders around one table, so really we’ve started to deal with the tourism industry as an industry and not as raw material.
With tourism stagnant for several years, many industry professionals, particularly those in managerial positions, have left the industry. How do we fill that void?
Training, training, training. And this has to be not only the government’s responsibility, but that of the private sector and the investor as well. Everyone has to be on board on this issue. We need training to have qualified people and to refresh calibers to be ready at any given moment to receive customers.
Let me clarify one thing here. Our problems are not only because of recent circumstances, whether the Russian crash or the revolution, no. It’s because for many years we did not deal with tourism as an industry. We did not update or upgrade our product, tactics or methodology to attract or cope with current business trends so at the end of the day our industry became very fragile. Some 75-78% of our business mix comes from Europe, mainly from just four countries—we did not really diversify, segregate, invent or integrate new business types or new markets. This should have been done years go. I’m not blaming any single party by the way. I’m not blaming the government, the investors or the private sector; I’m blaming all stakeholders together. We should have stood together in order and put a vision to improve this industry in place and this did not happen. That’s why now we are investing in the infrastructure of the tourism industry itself.
What sorts of challenges is the committee addressing?
There are two challenges in Egypt that we really need to tackle. But in order to experience any improvement you have to stand aside and admit first that you have a problem. We must admit we have an issue with human behavior and that we need global awareness for Egyptians starting from the airport: everyone from drivers, taxis, porters and those in hotels. We all need to work out a campaign, and this is a project that I really wish to see, to experience this physically. I would love to see a global campaign of awareness on how to deal with tourists. Not only a campaign but we need to have a law that in case of any harassment or any annoyance to the customer, this should be treated as a crime and there should be a liability. This is number one.
Number two, I wish to see the Egyptian tourism promotions board—this is another project I’m working on, an organization that was established in 1981—pull out from the bureaucracy. The main challenge we have here at this board is the bureaucracy. I am not talking about people; we have fantastic people. I’m talking about the system. If we really want to kickstart the tourist industry, we have to speed up our actions, especially that we are dealing with foreign countries and international organizations. The type of bureaucracy we currently have is considered a great challenge, though if we want to overcome this type of bureaucracy by having a different system, this system should not conflict in any way with the regulations of the country. I mean that we have to deal like the private sector, like any multinational in order to enhance and speed up our actions and catch up with whatever is happening around us worldwide.
Technology was discussed extensively at ITB. How have you worked it into the plans?
A full 90% of our marketing campaign is based on the digital platform and this is the fastest-growing, most significant trend—it’s the most launched tool you can use to reach customers right now rather than TV. This is actually what we are investing in. We are also investing in our website and we’re working with different stakeholders to offer everything online, starting from booking to fleets, aircraft or flights, featured articles and events.
Has this helped you attract different, younger customers?
Definitely. The younger generations, the millennials are only talking about technology. And one of the problems that I mentioned is that for years we did not really cope with this as an industry and in many ways became outdated. We did not prepare our product to target this type of customer; I’m talking about promotions and products not building hotels. For example, entertainment—if you have someone from a younger generation now and he goes to Karnak Temple or Hatshepsut in Luxor, for example. It will take some time to convince him unless there is something over there to impress him. Many countries right now are working on innovation tourism. Something really impressive aside from the sights you have, you need to tie this into any kind of technology.
How are we doing this is Egypt?
There are some locations where we can do this, but due to the heritage there are others where you can’t. That’s why we need to invest in events. It’s great to see the Pyramids and the Sphinx; this is the most iconic place worldwide. But it will be much better and greater if you feature what you have with an event. People have events in the middle of nowhere, so imagine having the same event in Luxor, in Aswan, in Cairo, in Sharm El-Sheikh, at one of this iconic place. . . .
We recently hosted Will Smith and Messi in Egypt. Many officials are coming to the country. The Pope is coming this month. Any celebrity or politician coming to the country really helps and don’t forget that we are planning local events as well. So we have the world women’s squash tournament in Gouna this month; and we featured our campaign in the English premier league for instance. We are promoting many local events and bringing in a large number of press and international media to showcase or portray our country to the entire world. The message is that the country is safe and ready to receive tourists.
Are we ready to receive the Russians and the British once the bans are lifted?
After ITB, I went to Moscow, not to promote because we are not allowed to, but this trip for me was very, very successful. We did it in coordination with our embassy and office in Russia and with the Egyptian Tourism Federation. The purpose of this trip was again, to stand apart from our partners in Russia and to see what marketing activities we are going to work on once the travel ban to Egypt is lifted. We can be proactive, we don’t have to wait until a decision is announced.
We had many press and media meetings in order to deliver a message to our friends in Moscow that the Russian market for us is not only about figures, we are talking here about the most significant market to Egypt. Egypt is important for them just as they are important for Egypt. We were assuring them that the infrastructure is ready for them—contrary to international press which says that we are not. We were there to affirm to them that infrastructure is improving.
There was very good coverage there of our trip. People would love it if the travel were to be lifted today before tomorrow. During the past 12 to 14 months since the travel ban was put in place, the Russians tried other destinations; they went to the Caribbean, they went to Greece, they went to Turkey, but found that Egypt is a country that cannot be compared to any other country.
What promotional plans will be launched once the ban is lifted?
The Russian market is like any other market: the campaign has to be mainly digital, but apart from the campaign we are planning to have road shows in different cities to introduce Egypt to the people there and invite them to Egypt. After the ban is lifted people need to be sure that we are ready to receive them. This will be in coordination with the tour operators we partner with there. We won’t see hundreds of flights bringing in the tourists, no. First they will be coming to test that everything is in good shape. Our role as hotels, as the private sector, as investors, as the government is to leave a very positive impression for these people to take home. Word of mouth promotion is key and currently we really need people to talk positively about the country and encourage others to come.
Are you confident we’re on the right track?
I’m very happy with what’s happening today in the tourism industry. I am sure that the expectation for the field is quite high and there are positive indications. Maybe we are not going to experience a huge jump in summer because it’s very short notice and most of the tour operators have already planned their destinations. But we still have an opportunity and after meeting with many of the tour operators worldwide, they have expressed they are willing to try and divert as many trips as they can to Egypt. And now that it’s an affordable destination, it really is a dream for foreigners to come to Egypt.