Tourism takes a hit in EgyptAir plane crash

Egypt has seen a fall in tourist arrivals from 15 million a year to nine million since 2011.

Whether EgyptAir Fli-ght 840 flying from Paris to Cairo was bro-ught down by an electrical fault or a bomb, the incident can be expected to prompt passengers not to fly with it or to choose other airlines and holiday-makers to stay away from Egypt. 

The flight crashed in the Mediterranean sea on May 19, killing all 66 passengers and crew. The aircraft had been in Asmara in Eritrea and Tunis in Tunisia as well as Cairo before flying to Paris, raising suspicions that a bomb or an incendiary device could have been put on the plane at any of these locations, complicating the task of investigators.

Egyptian authorities initially suggested that the crash was a result of terrorism but later said the cause was yet to be identified. Experts say this could take a month or more to determine.

Cairo’s approach to this incident contrasted sharply with its months-long refusal to accept that a bomb had caused last October’s crash of a Russian civilian aircraft, killing 224 people, while flying over Sinai. The local branch of the Islamic State claimed the bombing. 

Investigators found that an airport employee had placed explosives in a soft drink tin under a seat. Lax security at Sharm al-Shaikh and other Egyptian airports was blamed for the disaster. Since then, Egypt has stepped up vetting of cleaners and loaders and intensified searches of passengers and luggage.

There are, however, always possibilities of lapses, increasing the vulnerability of troubled countries like Egypt, Eritrea, and Tunisia, as well as countries facing terrorist threats, including France. In February, explosives hidden in a laptop killed the man who brought it aboard and blew a hole in a Somali plane which landed safely. Two airport employees carried the laptop past security checks. In March, another laptop exploded while being examined by security personnel at an airport in central Somalia.

So far, the 21st century has suffered a few aircraft bombings. The 1970s and 1980s experienced spikes in explosions on aircraft, with many casualties. The most deadly was the 1985 destruction of Air India Flight 182 over the Atlantic Ocean by Sikh militants, with 329 fatalities.

EgyptAir’s safety record has been relatively good. The airline’s most recent accident in July 2011 involved a cockpit fire due to an electrical fault interacting with an oxygen supply hose for the crew. The accident, fortunately, took place on the ground at Cairo airport. Seven injuries occurred during evacuation. This incident will ensure that investigators focus on the electrical systems of flight 840 as well as search for clues of sabotage.

The crash of the EgyptAir plane will deal a heavy blow to Egypt’s ailing tourism sector. Many people who contemplate holidays in the country could drop the idea or cancel bookings while those travelling there for work could choose airlines other than EgyptAir, reducing its earnings and, perhaps, forcing the airline to close certain routes.

Fall in revenuesEgyptian tourism revenues fell after 30-year President Hosni Mubarak was ousted by the 2011 uprising. The decline was accelerated by the unrest which began in July 2013 when President Muhammad Morsi, a Muslim Brotherhood stalwart, was ousted by the army following mass protests calling for his resignation. 

He was brought down by mismanagement and corruption and because the Brotherhood refused to share power with other parties. His supporters mounted a campaign against the authorities and the military while radical sympathisers based in Sinai attacked troops and police. This prompted a harsh crackdown by the security forces on all forms of dissent. This has not, however, halted attacks by IS and its allies. 

The downing of the Russian airliner in early 2015 led to a 46.3% reduction in this year’s flow of foreign tourists to Sharm al-Shaikh, once a popular holiday resort. This came on top of a fall in tourist arrivals in Egypt from 15 million a year to nine million since 2011. In peak years, tourism provided $14 billion in foreign revenue urgently needed to import fuel, commercial goods and food for Egypt. Tourism revenue is now $5.9 billion due to insecurity.

Since 2011, the Egyptian economy has been in free fall. Saudi Arabia and the Gulf emirates have deposited billions of dollars in Egypt’s central bank to boost foreign exchange reserves and prop up the sinking currency. During a recent visit to Cairo, Saudi King Salman announced a $16 billion investment fund as well as smaller investments in specific projects. 

However, due to the kingdom’s own economic crisis brought on by the low price of oil – its major resource – Riyadh may not be able to deliver on its pledges, leaving Egypt on the verge of bankruptcy. 

Until it has the means, Cairo will not be able to tackle radicalisation of disaffected, poorly educated and unemployed youth recruited by IS to strike at the army and the wealthy elite which reversed the 2011 “revolution” that promised Egyptians “Bread, Freedom and Justice.”

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