One of the world's largest cruise ships, its foreign passengers primed for onshore spending, was supposed to dock in Egypt in September. The port call, however, was scrapped because of security concerns surrounding Mideast protests against a film made in the US that denounces Islam's holiest figure.
Once again, Egyptian tourism, an engine of the national economy and a flagship of the regional industry, has taken a hit. It was another setback for a business that had plummeted in parts of the Middle East and North Africa last year during the uprisings known as the Arab Spring, then moved toward recovery this year.
"Small things become like mountains," Essam Zeid, an Egyptian tour guide, said of the fallout from unrest in Egypt since authoritarian President Hosni Mubarak was ousted in February 2011. But he also offered a (somewhat) positive metaphor: "We always say that Egypt gets sick but never dies. Recovery is always an option."
Egypt and other Arab nations undergoing turmoil rely heavily on the labor-intensive trade and see it as key to economic growth and social stability.
Tourism directly contributes a big chunk of gross domestic product to some of the countries that suffered economic fallout from last year's tumult, which came not long after the global financial crisis.
Egypt, for example, generates 6.7% of GDP from travel and tourism and Tunisia is around the same level with 6.6%, with benefits to related businesses pushing the figures even higher, according to the London-based World Tourism and Travel Council. It is among industry groups that will assess the impact from the latest upheaval, though it is too early for a comprehensive estimate of losses.
In the multi-layered Middle East, a setback for tourism in one area can mean a windfall in another. During the Arab Spring, tourists, many of them Arabs, turned away from countries in crisis and traveled to more stable places like Qatar, Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates, said Sana Toukan, Middle East research manager for Euromonitor International, a market research group. The UAE also drew more Chinese visitors, according to Toukan.
The latest downturn followed demonstrations in Egypt against an online film that was produced by a US citizen originally from Egypt and denigrates the Prophet Muhammad. They were part of a wider explosion of anger in Muslim countries. The unrest hit near the US Embassy, far from the pyramids of Giza on Cairo's outskirts, and even farther from gated Red Sea resorts, cocoons for the beach-bound vacationer.
Yet the online or TV images of flames, barricades and whooping demonstrators were a killjoy for anyone planning a getaway, even though the protests have subsided in many places. Tour guides in Egypt say tourist bookings are mostly holding, but they worry about a drop-off early next year as people tend to plan several months ahead.
Tharwat Agami, head of the chamber of tourist agencies in Luxor, home to the Valley of the Kings tombs in southern Egypt, reported up to one-quarter of tourist cancellations through October. His own company guided 17 American tourists last week, half of the group's expected number.
Royal Caribbean International took no chances. One of its vessels, Mariner of the Seas, can carry more than 3,000 passengers. It left Italy, on September 15 – with regional tension still boiling over the film – and was to call at Alexandria on the northern Egypt Mediterranean coast three days later.
The company canceled the layover "in an abundance of caution," said Cynthia Martinez, director of global corporate communications at Miami-based Royal Caribbean Cruises Ltd.
"Royal Caribbean International continues to closely monitor the situation in Egypt," Martinez wrote in an email to The Associated Press. "At this time, Royal Caribbean has not changed the itinerary of any upcoming sailing that includes a port call to Egypt."
Cruise ships also stayed away during the turmoil that led to Mubarak's downfall. Usually, passengers board buses for a day's outing to Cairo, where the pyramids, the medieval citadel, the mummies of the Egyptian Museum and other treasures await. It's a windfall for guides, ticket vendors and souvenir shops.
Egyptian tourism revenues fell 30% to $9 billion in 2011, but the industry proved as resilient as it is vulnerable. It survived the killing of 62 people, mostly foreign tourists, by Islamic militants in a 1997 attack at Luxor that seemed aimed at weakening the government by stopping the flow of tourism revenue. The September 11, 2001 attacks by al-Qaeda pummeled tourism, as did 2005 bombings in Egypt's Red Sea resort of Sharm-el-Sheikh.
World's fastest growing tourism market
Fueled partly by oil income, Mideast tourism is more diverse and reliant on regional customers. Expatriates and tourists splurge in the glitzy city-state of Dubai in the Persian Gulf; religious tourism is big at Islamic sites in Saudi Arabia; Oman and Jordan are angling for a piece of the medical tourism market. The popular uprisings did not affect Turkey but diverted tourist traffic to the country, now rated sixth in the world in international tourist arrivals.
Tourism prospects are a moot point in Syria, which is embroiled in a civil war, and in still-chaotic Libya, where militias roam. The US ambassador to Libya and three other Americans were killed on September 12 in the eastern Libyan city of Benghazi in an attack on the American consulate there.
In Tunisia, violence and looting around the US Embassy during a protest against the anti-Islam film did no favors for a tourism campaign that had been titled, "All Dreams are Possible."
"It's not one picture when you look at the Middle East," said Sandra Carvao, Madrid-based communications coordinator at the World Tourism Organization, a UN agency. "It's a region that has suffered and has proven to bounce back in the past."
Indeed, the agency had deemed the Middle East to be the fastest growing tourism market in the world over the past decade, despite the Iraq war, the 2006 conflict between Israel and Lebanon's Hezbollah and other violence. While some Gulf airlines have gone bankrupt, Carvao compared the expansion of Emirates and Etihad Airways to the rate of growth of Asia's aviation leaders.
Amid upheaval and political transition in 2011, according to the agency, international tourist arrivals in the Middle East dropped 7% to 55.7 million, and in North Africa by 9% to 17 million. So far this year, the numbers have climbed by nearly 1% and 10.5%, respectively.
Gladys Haddad, a tour guide in Cairo, said she was pleased that Egypt's new president, Mohammed Morsi, appealed to Italians to visit Egypt when he was in Rome at the height of tension over the anti-Islam film. She said early concerns that Egypt's Islamist-dominated government might scare off tourists by banning alcohol or mixed beaches have waned, at least for now.
"I don't think they're going to have like a magic stick to do things right away" to improve tourism, Zeid, the guide who is quick with a metaphor, said of Egypt's fledgling government. "We can't really evaluate their work right now. They have lots of other issues on their agenda."
One thing in their favor, immeasurably, is what lies in Egyptian sands. In its bid to revive tourism, the government last month reopened the Serapeum of Saqqara, a subterranean necropolis where bulls were believed to have been buried in giant sarcophagi. The site was closed for a decade for renovation.
One tourist who marveled at Egypt's heritage was Herodotus, the ancient Greek who wrote about Egyptian beliefs and customs, based on what he said he had observed.
According to a 19th century translation by a British scholar, he wrote: "Concerning Egypt itself, I shall extend my remarks to a great length, because there is no country that possesses so many wonders, nor any that has such a number of works which defy description.