Egypt relies on ancient discoveries to lift tourism out of pandemic
CAIRO – Workers dig and transport wheelbarrows loaded with sand to open a new well at a bustling archaeological site outside Cairo, while a handful of Egyptian archaeologists watch from lawn chairs. The excavation is at the foot of the Step Pyramid of Djoser, arguably the oldest pyramid in the world, and is one of many recent excavations that have yielded treasures of ancient objects from the country’s largest archaeological site.
While some European countries are reopening to international tourists, Egypt has been trying for months to attract them to its archaeological sites and museums. Officials are betting that the old new findings will set it apart in the mid and post-pandemic tourism market. They need visitors to come back in force to inject money into the tourism industry, a mainstay of the economy.
But like other countries, Egypt continues to fight the coronavirus and is struggling to get its population vaccinated. The country has so far received only 5 million vaccines for its population of 100 million, according to its health ministry. In early May, the government announced that one million people had been vaccinated, although that number is considered higher now.
In the meantime, authorities have kept the advertising machine running, focused on the new findings.
In November, archaeologists announced the discovery of at least 100 ancient coffins dating from the late Pharaonic period and the Greco-Ptolemaic era, as well as 40 golden statues found 2,500 years after their first burial. This happened a month after the discovery of 57 other coffins at the same site, the Saqqara necropolis which includes the Step Pyramid.
“Saqqara is a treasure,” Tourism and Antiquities Minister Khaled el-Anany said when announcing the November find, estimating that only 1% of what the site contains has been unearthed so far.
“Our problem now is that we don’t know how we can wow the world after this,” he said.
If they don’t, it certainly won’t be for lack of trying.
In April, Zahi Hawass, Egypt’s best-known archaeologist, announced the discovery of a 3,000-year-old lost city in southern Luxor, complete with mud brick houses, artifacts and tools from the pharaonic era. It dates back to Amenhotep III of the 18th Dynasty, whose reign (1390–1353 BC) is considered a golden age for ancient Egypt.
This discovery was followed by a TV-designed parade celebrating the transport of 22 of the country’s prized royal mummies from central Cairo to their new resting place at a massive facility further south of the capital, the National Museum of the Egyptian civilization.
The seaside resort of Sharm el-Sheikh on the Red Sea is now home to an archaeological museum, as is Cairo International Airport, both open in recent months. And officials also said they still plan to open the new large Egyptian museum next to the Pyramids of Giza by January, after years of delays. Entrance fees for archaeological sites have been reduced, as has the cost of tourist visas.
The government has for years played its ancient history as a selling point, as part of a multi-year effort to revive the country’s tourism industry. He was hit hard during and after the popular uprising that toppled longtime autocrat Hosni Mubarak and the unrest that ensued. The coronavirus dealt him a similar blow as he recovered.
In 2019, foreign tourism revenue was $ 13 billion. Egypt welcomed some 13.1 million foreign tourists, reaching pre-2011 levels for the first time. But in 2020, it only received 3.5 million foreign tourists, according to Minister el-Anany. .
At the newly opened National Museum of Egyptian Civilization, Mahmoud el-Rays, a tour guide, led a small group of European tourists into the room housing the royal mummies.
“2019 has been a fantastic year,” he said. “But Corona turned it all around. It’s a big blow. “
Tourist traffic has increased in the first months of 2021, Minister el-Anany told The Associated Press in a recent interview, without however giving precise figures. He was optimistic that more would continue to come throughout the year.
“Egypt is a perfect post-COVID destination as our tourism is truly outdoor tourism,” he said.
But it remains to be seen whether the country really has the virus under control. It has recorded a total of 14,950 deaths from the virus and still sees more than a thousand new cases a day. Like other countries, the actual numbers would be much higher. In Egypt, however, the authorities doctors arrested and critics silenced who questioned the government’s response, so there are fears that information on the true cost of the virus may have been suppressed early on.
Egypt also had a trying experience at the start of the pandemic, when it saw a coronavirus outbreak on one of its Nile cruise ships. It first closed its borders completely until the summer of 2020, but then welcomed tourists, first in the resorts of the Red Sea and now in the heart of the country – Cairo and the Nile Valley which is home to most of its famous archaeological sites. Visitors still need a negative COVID-19 test result to enter the country.
In another cause for optimism, Russia said in April that it plans to resume direct flights to Egyptian resorts on the Red Sea. Moscow halted flights after local Islamic State affiliate bombed a Russian airliner over the Sinai Peninsula in October 2015, killing everyone on board.
Amanda, a 36-year-old Austrian engineer, returned to Egypt in May. It was his second visit in four years. She visited the Egyptian Museum, the National Museum of Egyptian Civilization and Islamic Cairo, in the historic center of the capital.
She had planned to come last year, but the pandemic intervened.
“Once they opened, I came,” she says. “It was my dream to see the pyramids again.”
El-Rays, the tour guide, says that if he sees tourists starting to come in greater numbers, he knows a full recovery won’t happen overnight.
“It will take some time to come back before the crown,” he said.