CAIRO >> On a cool morning last November, Egypt’s tourism and antiquities minister stood in a packed tent at the vast necropolis of Saqqara just outside Cairo to reveal the ancient site’s largest archaeological discovery of the year.
The giant trove included 100 wooden coffins — some containing mummies interred over 2,500 years ago — 40 statues, amulets, canopic jars and funerary masks. The minister, Khaled el-Enany, said the latest findings hinted at the great potential of the ancient site and showcased the dedication of the all-Egyptian team that unearthed the gilded artifacts.
But he also singled out another reason the archaeological discoveries were crucial: It was a boon for tourism, which had been decimated by the coronavirus pandemic.
“This unique site is still hiding a lot,” el-Enany said. “The more discoveries we make, the more interest there is in this site and in Egypt worldwide.”
Egyptology is having a big moment: Archaeologists announced last month that they had unearthed an ancient pharaonic city near the southern city of Luxor that dated back more than 3,400 years.
The discovery came just days after 22 royal mummies were moved to a new museum in a lavish spectacle that was broadcast worldwide. In addition, the discovery of 59 beautifully preserved sarcophagi in Saqqara is the subject of a recent Netflix documentary; a bejeweled statue of the god Nefertum was found in Saqqara; the 4,700-year-old Step Pyramid of Djoser was reopened last year after a 14-year, $6.6 million restoration; and progress is apace on the stunning Grand Egyptian Museum, scheduled to open this year.
But the pandemic has dealt a severe blow to the tourism industry, and what had been expected to be a bonanza season became a bleak winter.
Tourism is a crucial part of Egypt’s economy — international tourism revenues totaled $13 billion in 2019 — and the country has been eager to attract visitors back to its archaeological sites.
With travel restrictions, border closings and reduced capacity at hotels, international visitors to Egypt dropped by 69% in the first eight months of 2020 alone, while revenues plunged by 67% in the same period, according to the World Tourism Organization, a United Nations agency.
Now more than ever, tourism in Egypt is facing “an unprecedented challenge,” Zurab Pololikashvili, the organization’s secretary-general, said in an email.
In recent years, Egypt’s tourism has been adversely affected by a string of misfortunes, starting with the political instability that followed the 2011 revolution and occasional bursts of terrorism, including attacks on tourists, bomb blasts that damaged prominent museums and a downed airliner that killed hundreds of Russian tourists in 2015.
But the sector was steadily recovering, with visitors attracted by both antiquities and the sun-and-sea offerings, growing to over 13 million in 2019 from 5.3 million in 2016. The coronavirus pandemic has reversed these gains, leaving hotels, resorts and cruises empty, popular sites without visitors and revenue, and thousands of tour guides and vendors with drastically reduced incomes or none at all.
“Tourism in Egypt just had one of its best years in 2019 and then came the pandemic which severely impacted it all,” Amr Karim, general manager for Travco Travel, one of Egypt’s largest tour operators, said in a telephone interview. “Nobody knew what would happen, how we will handle it, how it will affect us. It’s strange.”
The pandemic, he said, disrupted how tour companies operated, how they priced their packages and how to work with hotels and abide by their new hygiene playbooks.
The pandemic also exposed the fragility of Egypt’s health care system, with doctors lamenting shortages of protective equipment and testing kits while patients died from lack of oxygen. With over 12,000 deaths, Egypt also recorded one of the highest fatality rates from the virus in the Arab world.
WITH A growing number of cases, health officials in Egypt have recently warned of a third wave of the virus. Authorities have canceled large gatherings and festivals, and promised to fine those not complying with protective measures like mask-wearing, but many Egyptians do not abide by these rules.
Travelers are required to have a negative COVID-19 test taken 72 hours before arriving in Egypt, and hotels are mandated to operate at half capacity.
With shrinking bookings, the government has stepped in to cushion the blow to the tourism sector. Authorities introduced a raft of measures including allowing certain tourism-dependent businesses like hotels and resorts to delay the payment of utility bills, rescheduling debt repayments and providing financial aid to tourism workers.
The government has also sought to attract travelers by reducing the cost of tourist visas and entrance fees to archaeological sites, and has created programs aimed at increasing domestic tourism to make up for the lack of foreign tourists. A winter promotion, for instance, offered Egyptians discounts on domestic air travel, hotels and museum admissions.
But Ahmed Samir, CEO of the tour company Egypt Tours Portal, said the direct cash support for tourism workers was minimal. With reduced bookings, he was able to keep his employees in his marketing and social media departments on the payroll but at half salary.
“As a kind of sympathy to my employees, we tried to balance,” he said. But still, he added, “most of my friends’ companies closed completely.”
The slowdown in tourist arrivals has left areas usually swamped by tourists quiet.
AT THE Egyptian Museum in downtown Cairo, Mahrous Abu Seif, a tour guide, sat waiting for clients one morning. A few small tour groups, including from Russia and China, were going through metal detector scans to enter the museum. But he hoped that more clients would come.
“What can I tell you? We sit here and wait and wait,” he said, throwing his hands in the air and adjusting his sunglasses. “We don’t know what the future holds.”
On the other side of town, at the historic El Fishawy coffeehouse, a few locals gurgled their water pipes and drank mint tea or Turkish coffee while melodious Quran recitation ascended from a nearby speaker. Located in the centuries-old Khan el Khalili market, the cafe, along with souvenir and jewelry shops, was hit badly by the pandemic.
“I used to bring people here, and it would be packed, but look at it now,” Mohamed Said Rehan, a guide with a local company, said of the cafe. “The pandemic is a big problem.”
Rehan said that he knows many colleagues and friends who had to stay home for months without income or who left the industry altogether. But he still clings to a thread of hope that tourism will pick up soon.
And some tourists have indeed started coming back.
In February, Marcus Zimmermann, a 43-year-old architect from Germany, was visiting Egypt for the first time, stopping first in Cairo and planning trips to the city of Luxor, home to the iconic Valley of the Kings. Zimmermann had hoped to come to Egypt last year with his mother, who dreamed of being an archaeologist, for her 70th birthday. But they had to cancel their plans because of the pandemic.
This year, he decided to come alone but promised to “plan the trip again” with her once she’s vaccinated.
Even though it will be tough attaining the prepandemic figures quickly, people like Karim who work in the industry hope tourists will start coming back by year’s end.
With all the new discoveries, renovations and the planned opening of new sites and museums, tourists will gradually flock back to Egypt, he said.
“People will start to move. People will start to travel,” he said. “I am optimistic.”