How Not To Handle A Tourism Crisis: Lessons From Egypt

Tourism ministries, boards and offices the world over are finally waking up to the reality that developing a substantive relationship with the American market can be an extremely lucrative investment. We are a nation of over 300 million first-world consumers, mostly middle class with ample disposable income available for travel even in these economically trying times. But American travel consumers are a sophisticated bunch, and traditional advertising and marketing campaigns no longer suffice to peak their interest and convince them to travel.

This new trend is especially the case for international destinations that are frequently — or even occasionally — plagued by negative coverage in Western media. For these types of destinations, more creative advocacy and influence campaigns are needed to counteract the bad press, to educate consumers about the reality of the destination and how to travel there safely, and to overcome the understandable hesitance that potential travelers will naturally have to travel to a destination that they perceive — rightly or wrongly — to be a little edgy.

With such an enormous population of travelers, even niche subsets of the American travel consumer market can be worthwhile targets for foreign tourism authorities, often times equaling the numbers and spending power of other countries’ and regions’ general travel consumer markets. What this means is that investing in reaching and attracting the tens of millions of Americans who are willing to travel to edgy, developing, and/or long-haul destinations can be well worth the effort — if it is done carefully and smartly.

While riots, violence, and other domestic and civil disturbances frequently flare up in places like Mexico, Brazil, Greece, Korea, Thailand and many other popular international destinations, American travelers still flock to these hotspots to soak up their sun, tour their sites and spend hoards of money. While this trend may seem counterintuitive, it reflects the successful adoption and sponsorship of a more advanced and nuanced set of strategies and tactics to promote continued tourism to these destinations.

But one place Americans and other Westerners have been steering clear of in large numbers for the past two years is Egypt — a “bucket list” destination of nearly everyone and one of the world’s most culturally and historically rich countries. Unlike many of its competitors for international tourists, Egypt could be a case study in how not to protect and preserve a nation’s tourism industry when a serious social, economic or political crisis emerges. And although it may seem to provide a convenient excuse, paralysis within Egypt’s political establishment over the past year should not have prevented its tourism ministry — and the wider government for that matter — from proactively and aggressively addressing what it surely knew could become a major problem for Egypt’s tourism industry. And that it has.

Those of us who have been on the ground there during the past year (I made 10 trips to Egypt in 2012 alone) know that tourism continues virtually uninterrupted within the country and remains perfectly safe if done smartly. Despite the demonstrations, rallies and occasional clashes that still occur there, tourists remain largely insulated, isolated and protected from the ongoing political turmoil for a variety of reasons. The grievances that the Egyptian people have remain chiefly about domestic issues and active political expression there is targeted at the government. Foreign tourists in the country are still warmly welcomed and Egypt’s most famous sites and monuments are luckily situated far from the few places where demonstrations and clashes typically occur.

The Pyramids of Giza, for example, are far outside of central Cairo at the eastern edge of the Sahara Desert, while the famous tombs and temples of the Pharaohs are located more than 300 miles to the south around the peaceful and sleepy town of Luxor. Similarly, the white sand beaches and turquoise waters of Egypt’s Red Sea coast are also hundreds of miles away from the political drama of central Cairo.

It’s almost as if one were to be frightened and concerned about visiting Myrtle Beach or Philadelphia because a demonstration on the National Mall in Washington turned violent. And while I have personally seen tear gas used on crowds of rowdy demonstrators in Tahrir Square when rogue elements attacked law enforcement or government property (only because I opted to go watch the demonstrations up close, which is not a recommended itinerary activity for tourists), I have also been inadvertently tear gassed on the streets of Washington, D.C. too before as an accidental bystander when anti-government demonstrators there tried to tear down a fence during a previous presidential inauguration parade.

But none of these relevant and influential facts about the reality of tourism in Egypt and the situation on the ground there have been communicated to Western travel consumers on any meaningful scale. Rather than combat the abundant negative and sensationalist exposure Egypt has received over the past two years, the powers that be within the government have opted instead to retreat and stay quiet. Rather than changing strategies and tactics to adapt to a new reality in the perception of Egypt abroad, the low-level advertising and marketing efforts that have appeared focus instead on traditional, generic and often times irrelevant approaches that fail to sway sophisticated modern travel consumers in Western markets. And completely missing from the equation were any of the newer, more creative and more aggressive approaches from the separate but complimentary emerging field of “commercial advocacy.”

The social, economic and political issues that plague Egypt are not likely going to get resolved anytime soon, and given the fact that up to 20 percent of Egypt’s economy is based directly or indirectly on tourism, the lack of leadership and failure to evolve with respect to the promotion of tourism is only going to continue to compound the problems that Egypt faces. But the good news, the cause for optimism, is that it nevertheless remains possible for tourism to safely continue to and within Egypt even while the country’s politics continue to evolve around us. In order to take advantage of this potential, however, Egypt’s leaders and bureaucrats, particularly within the tourism sector, need to open up to outside-the-box thinkers and strategists, get in touch with this new reality and get active — or better yet, proactive — in returning Egypt to its rightful place in the international travel arena.