Is Egypt ready for tourists?

Tens of thousands of Egyptians celebrate the fall of the regime of former President Hosni Mubarak in Cairo's Tahrir Square Feb. 18, 2011. Sipa via AP Images

The demonstrations that led to the stunning ouster of Egypt's 30-year ruler, which sent around the globe chaotic images of vans mowing down protesters, fires gutting government buildings and tanks patrolling the streets, also cost the country an estimated $1 billion in tourist revenue.

Nearly two weeks after Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak resigned, the Middle Eastern country now under military rule eagerly wants to regain its position as a major tourist destination. And many in the U.S. travel industry see Egypt primed for a comeback.

Complete Coverage: Egypt - The Road Ahead

Many historical sites, such as the pyramids of Giza and museums in Cairo and on the Nile river, have already reopened. But while the State Department continues to warn Americans to put off non-essential travel to the country, some heads of travel companies are sending tourists back to Egypt in less than three weeks.

CBS News travel editor Peter Greenberg pointed out that the turmoil in Egypt actually benefits opportunistic travelers.

"People don't realize that, as politically incorrect as this sounds, but the best time to go to places is after periods of civil unrest," said Greenberg. "I sent a lot of my friends to Cairo 10 days ago. They called me and said they're at the pyramids all by themselves."

Two chief executives of tour operation companies in New York, Ady Gelber and Nikos Tsakanikas are old hands in sending tourists to Egypt. Tsakanikas said his Homeric Tours company has been booking Egyptian tours for 25 years and sends about 2,500 visitors there annually.

Gelber said his company, IsramWorld, has been doing business in Egypt since "the moment" the country signed a peace treaty with Israel in 1979. Now, IsramWorld books tours for about 2,200 customers to Egypt per year.

Tourism in Egypt has been estimated to account for between 5 percent and 10 percent of the country's gross domestic product, or as much as $11 billion annually. The Associated Press reported Tuesday that the country lost about $178 million when an estimated 210,000 tourists left Egypt after the protests began in the last week of January. Vacation cancellations for February added another $825 million in estimated lost revenue, the AP reported.

"Believe it or not, people are starting to book trips," said Tsakanikas. "The first ones to have people going is March 12."

Gelber said phones started ringing to book Egyptian tours after the long Presidents Day holiday weekend.

"Some of them who canceled are coming back," said Gelber. "The Europeans are coming back, and the Americans will soon follow."

The recent unrest added to a list of tumultuous times that hit the country's tourism sector, including terrorist attacks in Luxor in October 1997 and in the Sinai Peninsula in 2004 and 2005. Even in the first hours of 2011, a bomb exploded in front of a Coptic Christian church, killing 21 people. But the tourism industry has proved to be resilient.

"It stops for a while, but in a very short time it comes back," Tsakanikas said.

Greenberg said it is in Egypt's best interest to get its tourism industry back up and running because it is the country's largest source of income.

"You will see before they have an election in Egypt, before they have anyone in power, they will get their travel and tourism back because they don't have a choice," Greenberg said.

The United States Tour Operators Association, an organization to which both Gelber and Tsakanikas belong, surveyed its members that book tours in Egypt Feb. 12, the day after Mubarak stepped down. While not all of its members expected to resume tours as early as next month, most respondents expected business to return to normal within a year.

"There will be a very strong sentiment to help in -- what do you call it -- patriotic tourism," said Terry Dale, the group's president. "There will be a strong pull to see Egypt recover quickly."

Egypt's weakened tourism industry has received some notice at the State Department, which urges Americans to avoid unnecessary travel there.

"We are looking for ways to help Egypt," the department's spokesman P.J. Crowley told reporters Tuesday. "Egypt depends significantly on tourism, and we want to see that pillar of the economy restored."

Some members of the protest movement that sparked Mubarak's downfall have now shifted their focus to trying to rebuild that pillar. Wael Ghonim, the Google executive credited with creating the Facebook page that helped demonstrators organize their protests, Tweeted an invitation for tourists to come back with a link to a promotional YouTube video. When Egyptians celebrated the first week of life without Mubarak in power Friday, the AP reported that about 30 activists from the "Visit Egypt" campaign wore matching T-shirts decorated with the slogan "Support Freedom, Visit Egypt."

However, with the country under martial law after Mubarak's Feb. 11 resignation and the military's rise as a transitional government with an unlimited check on its power, there still is some doubt within the travel industry regarding when to return.

"Given that Egypt is still in a state of unrest, I don't think we can comment on the future of tourism there other than to say that we look forward to the return of a free flow of tourists to what has long been a very popular destination for Americans looking to explore the Middle East," Kristina Rundquist, a spokeswoman for the American Society of Travel Agents, wrote in an e-mail.

To gauge "very popular" in terms of numbers, in 2009, the most recent year that statistics are available, an estimated 273,000 Americans visited Egypt, according to Richard Champley, an analyst for Office of Travel and Tourism Industries, the branch of the Commerce Department that tracks travel statistics for the U.S. government.

But the government continues to advise Americans to avoid unnecessary travel there. On Friday, the State Department updated its travel warning for the country for the first time since Mubarak's departure. The United States "continues to warn U.S. citizens to defer non-essential travel to Egypt."

A State Department official, speaking on background, said there's "no such thing as a specific timeline" for downgrading the severity of the U.S. government's travel advice for a particular country.

"It is something they keep current," the official said. "They review those regularly and adjust as necessary."

Gelber, the tour company owner, said he doesn't pay much attention to State Department warnings and advisories, but he thinks the travel warning will be lifted March 1. The British government, for example, has already stopped advising Britons to avoid unnecessary travel to Cairo, Alexandria and Suez.

CBS News' Greenberg urges travelers to use common sense when deciding what to visit, no matter where they go.

"There are parts of Cleveland I wouldn't go to," he said, "and there are parts of Cairo I wouldn't go to, even on the good days."

  • Alex Sundby

    Alex Sundby is an associate news editor for CBSNews.com

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