International Relations: Bandaging Egypt’s tourism industry - The Egyptian economy hangs in the balance as the country prepares to undertake the ’mother of all PR tasks’ in a bid to stop its tourism industry from suffering total me

Until the Luxor massacre last month, when 61 people were slaughtered in cold-blood by terrorists from the Al-Gamma extremist group, the tourism picture in Egypt seemed quite rosy.

Until the Luxor massacre last month, when 61 people were

slaughtered in cold-blood by terrorists from the Al-Gamma extremist

group, the tourism picture in Egypt seemed quite rosy.



Almost four million tourists visited Egypt in 1996, up from the previous

best of three million in 1992 - a point well before the terrorists began

the deliberate targeting of tourists.



Despite setbacks such as the Cairo tourist bus bombing in September, the

positive trend was continuing. The number of tourists visiting Egypt in

the first nine months of 1997 was up by over ten per cent.



But the sheer scale and ugliness of the bloodshed in the Valley of

Queens has created a public relations problem of a magnitude that the

Egyptian government has not had to deal with before. With an estimated

one in six of the Egyptian population depending on foreign visitors for

their livelihoods, it is an issue that has to be resolved effectively.

The health of the Egyptian economy is at stake.



To add to the misfortune, news of the tragedy broke while Egyptian

Minister for Tourism Dr Mamdouh el Beltagui was at Egypt’s lavish stand

at the World Travel Market show in London where he was immediately

confronted with awkward questions from the international media.



One of the Egyptian Government’s first responses in the UK was to pull a

promotional poster campaign that was just breaking. Space booked on

poster sites has been given to charities instead, although the campaign

has not been scrapped entirely and is likely to reappear at some stage

next year.



Yet with the UK Foreign Office advising travellers not to visit Luxor,

all major British tour operators putting a moratorium on packages to the

area, and the mix up over the identities of several bodies, it has

become ever clearer that the fall-out from the terror incident needed

careful handling.



Last week the Egyptian Ambassador to the UK, Adal Aljazzar, called in

Lowe Bell Good Relations to provide PR support (PR Week, 5 December)

after making overtures to several consultancies. The consultancy reports

to Egyptian embassy councillor Fatma Galal.



’We are very concerned that we are not abused in this phase,’ says

Galal.



’The danger with the media is that if there are no stories they might

make them up. We know that we are vulnerable at this point and that

people might consider attacking us. There was a security loophole but we

have reinforced our security in Luxor. However, we have done that in a

way that won’t disturb our guests. You can’t be a tourist and walk

side-by-side with the army.’



While an Egyptian Government committee weighs up what else, if anything,

can be done to safeguard tourists, Lowe Bell is being asked to do what

it can to restore confidence in Egypt as a destination. At the same

time, the charge for Egyptian visas has been waived in a somewhat vain

bid to encourage travellers to visit a part of the world where there are

now many bargains to be had as hotels compete desperately for business.

How likely is it, though, that the tourist market will return to the

rude health it had been enjoying until recently?



’History suggests that people have very short memories regarding these

things,’ says Mail on Sunday travel editor Frank Barrett. ’Even before

Luxor, if you made the decision to go to Egypt you did so knowing that

it was a place, like Israel, with troubles, and you bought into

that.’



’We commiserate wholeheartedly with the Egyptian government, but it will

blow over,’ says Israel Government Tourist Office PR manager Lea

Glickman.



’It’s a horrific thing to have happened but people will forget about

it.



And if they are offered a good deal they will go there.’



The Times travel editor Cath Urquhart is not so sanguine, however. ’It

was such a large attack and there were lots of graphic descriptions of

what happened to the bodies that I think the effect will continue for

longer in this case,’ she says. ’Some of the holiday companies have

pulled it for the rest of this year and the whole of next year. They

have got a real problem.’



Sue Mills, head of Shandwick PR’s travel and leisure division, is more

optimistic. She thinks the confusion over the return of bodies to the UK

helped shift the focus of attention away from the terrorist attack per

se and on to the competence of the Foreign Office.



Mills does not believe the Luxor massacre will have a long-term effect

on tourism, particularly among British travellers who tend to be more

’resilient’ to potential danger than, for example, Americans. Her advice

is for those involved in Egypt’s PR efforts to be realistic and

honest.



’This is not the time to launch a major ’visit Egypt’ campaign,’ says

Mills.



’You just have to accentuate the positive.’ While it will be some time

before things settle down, action has already been taken to encourage

positive media coverage. Two weeks ago Wakefield Taffarello Associates

flew journalists from the Guardian, Evening Standard and Press

Association out to Luxor on a press trip on behalf of its tour operator

client Destination Red Sea.



’My client still wants to sell Luxor,’ says WTA senior account manager

Karin Jones. The question for Egypt is, will there be many buyers?



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