“Four years ago, you couldn't see the ground for tourists,” Essam El Zawawy said as he gestured into the road outside the shop 10 feet from the main entrance to the Giza Pyramids where he works.
As he spoke, the street was deserted apart from a parked taxi and a couple of men drinking tea and smoking. “Then it was like a big party, like the crowds in Tahrir Square during the revolution,” he recalled, referring to the mass demonstrations in the central Cairo plaza which helped topple President Hosni Mubarak in 2011.
But the revolution gutted Egypt's tourist industry. Mubarak’s ouster was the start of a period of turmoil for the country that saw ongoing unrest, political instability, and the appointment — then subsequent removal by the military — of Mohamed Morsi, Egypt’s first democratically elected president. The new army-backed government then launched a crackdown against his supporters, killing hundreds and arresting many thousands more. Travel warnings followed from many countries, and vacationers stayed away.
Tourism accounted for more than 11 percent of Egypt’s GDP and for one out of every eight jobs, according to official figures. But by 2013, revenues had dropped from $12.5 billion in 2010 to $5.8 billion; visitor numbers fell from 14.7 million to 9.5 million over the same period. Tourism Minister Hisham Zaazou described last year as the worst in modern history.
And 2014 may be worse still. Visitor numbers have continued to decline over the past 12 months, and April saw a 22 percent drop in tourist numbers compared to the same time last year, the tourism ministry said.
Cairo, once the natural tourist destination of choice, became the focal point for most of Egypt's unrest and took the biggest hit as a result. The tourism ministry’s "pragmatic" plan to ignore the city when marketing Egypt to vacationers did not help. Those visitors who still ventured into the country tended to head to cheaper and more peaceful beach resorts such as Sharm el-Sheikh on the Red Sea.
In the capital, the impact is obvious. Only a trickle of visitors visit the famous Egyptian Museum, which is often surrounded by soldiers, police, and armored vehicles ready to prevent or disperse demonstrations in Tahrir Square next door. Tourist bazaars are empty but for despondent shop owners, while hawkers and touts are desperate, and hotels are empty apart from visiting businessmen and journalists.
The appointment of new president Abdel Fattah el-Sisi — the former armed forces head who toppled Morsi — and an apparent return to strongman rule has led some to hope for an increase in stability and subsequent boost in foreign visitors. For those with mouths to feed, civil rights are something of a luxury. “I have a business, I have family, and I'm afraid… I think Sisi will do something good for the country and everyone [tourists] will come back,” Zawawy says with obvious hope. “That's why I voted for him.”
A few miles from the Giza pyramids, the Pharaonic Village promises to bring ancient Egypt to life. The attraction is centered round a sizable recreation of an ancient Egyptian settlement and also features a selection of small museums. This includes one dedicated to former president Anwar Sadat, which displays his toothbrush and hair oil.
Guide Ahmed Hosny told VICE News that the village had more than 300 employees before the revolution, but that now there were “200 some.” Whatever the figure, they vastly outnumbered guests. On a Friday, the busiest day of the week for the village, the only visitors for the English version of the tour to arrive within a half-hour wait were two Dutch tourists.
“Since the revolution, few people come, they’re scared,” Hosny said. He too, hopes that Sisi’s election will help restore some semblance of normality. “We have been suffering. With [the election of] Sisi all Egyptians hope this is the end [to the turmoil].”
Giza Zoo also markets itself to visiting tourists, although there were none to be seen on one recent weekend. This has a major impact on its income as foreigners pay more than six times as much as Egyptians for entrance.
The zoo is close to both Cairo University, where there have been frequent clashes between protesters and security forces, and Nahda Square, location of a large protest camp of Morsi supporters last summer before security forces moved in to disperse it, killing scores.
The state-run zoo was in the news late last year after local media reported that a giraffe there committed suicide (staff say it was an accident). Three black bears died in May under unknown circumstance in what management called a bear "riot.” Employees converge on visitors clutching books of photos and ancient cameras offering them the chance to have their picture taken with a baby lion.