This is the first in a series of posts on the “Restoring the Journey” trip that brought US tourism leaders to Egypt and Jordan to experience safety conditions firsthand. I traveled with the delegation, which was sponsored by local tourism ministries, to provide coverage on Facebook, Twitter and blogs.
The US State Department removed its travel warning for Egypt on Thursday to reflect “continuing improvements since the January 25 Revolution.”
According to a new alert on the State Department website, the US Embassy in Cairo has resumed normal operations. Family members of Embassy staff can now return to Egypt, as the “ordered departure” status has been lifted.
During a meeting in Cairo this week, a delegation of US tourism leaders pressed Ambassador Margaret Scobey for an update on the travel warning. The presidents of the NTA, USTOA, ATTA and ASTA were in Egypt during a six-day, fact-finding trip to the Middle East.
“Lifting the travel warning will go far in restoring US consumer traffic to Egypt. Americans tend to be ‘risk averse’ when it comes to traveling abroad and this significant modification will give them the green light they’re looking for,” USTOA president Terry Dale said in an email.
Egyptians ‘welcoming’ foreigners
“We’re very supportive of Egyptian tourism and we know how important tourism is to them,” Ambassador Margaret Scobey told the US delegation on Sunday, before the travel warning was lifted. “We are no longer recommending that people defer travel to Egypt.”
Ambassador Scobey explained that the State Department’s first priority was to lift the ordered departure, which affected over 800 family members of US Embassy personnel.
“It’s not business as usual here but the military [and] the people of Egypt are doing an incredible job of steering the country towards elections,” she said. “Egyptians are by and large very welcoming of foreigners.”
While the ambassador declined to give any “iron-clad assurance” about travel safety in Egypt, she noted that “foreigners have been coming back steadily… [and] there have been very few problems.”
Although the State Department’s March 29 warning did not advise Americans against traveling to Egypt, tourism delegates said the presence of a warning discouraged travelers from visiting the country.
According to Egyptian officials, tourism was down 80% in February 2011, compared to the same period last year.
Situation is ‘calm’
Tahrir Square, the center of the January and February demonstrations, was mostly empty during our visit on Easter Sunday. The only signs of revolution were a few burned and damaged buildings surrounding the square. A gardener tended to a newly-sodded lawn as tourism delegates snapped photos of the historic site.
Tourists are not being targeted for violence “thanks to the relatively law-abiding and decent nature of Egypt’s citizens,” Ambassador Scobey said during our meeting at the US Embassy, located a few blocks from Tahrir Square.
Police are returning to their posts but law and order remains an issue for Egyptians, she noted. The State Department alert mentions the possibility of “sporadic unrest” and urges US citizens to follow the Egyptian curfew from 2 a.m. to 5 a.m. The security situation in Sharm el Sheikh and other resort areas “continues to be calm.”
“Egypt is clearly safe and ready to welcome back US visitors with open arms. We expect the Interior Department to restore the well-respected tourist police at major attractions shortly and as a result it’s business as usual in Egypt,” said USTOA president Terry Dale.
Both Ambassador Scobey and Egyptian officials said that the country’s tourism infrastructure is intact.
“If you go now– Luxor, Aswan, everywhere– there is complete security,” Dr. Zahi Hawass, Egypt’s Minister of Antiquities, told delegates at a dinner on Sunday. “The magic and the mystery of ancient Egypt is back.”