In Egypt the mummies return. But will tourists in the coronavirus pandemic?

(CNN) – Saqqara, a dusty necropolis south of Cairo, was instrumental in Egypt’s fight against tourist burglary.

It was an exceptional year for archaeological discoveries at the UNESCO World Heritage Site, with numerous sarcophagi and a variety of artifacts, including an obelisk and a unique jeweled statue of the god Nefertum, among separate finds.

This after the reopening of the 4,700-year-old Djoser step pyramid in March after a 14-year restoration worth 6.6 million US dollars.At the beginning of October, 59 sarcophagi, some 2,500 years old, were discovered. Wonderfully preserved with its original colors and hieroglyphics, its unveiling was an opportunity to reach a valued audience: tourists. In addition to the press, the Egyptian Ministry of Tourism and Antiques invited dozens of foreign ambassadors, who then shared pictures and details on social media.

“The discovery has gone down in the hearts of people around the world,” former minister of antiquities Zahi Hawass told CNN.

“I think the ambassadors really sent their countries a message about the joys of Egypt because we need tourists to come back.”

Foreign diplomats attended the October 3 press conference, which displayed 59 sarcophagi and various artifacts discovered in Saqqara, Egypt.

KHALED DESOUKI / AFP / AFP via Getty Images

Tourism in Egypt had grown in recent years, according to Kevin Graham, editor-in-chief for Egypt at the research and consulting firm Oxford Business Group (OBG). “At the beginning of 2020 we expected this growth trend to continue,” he told CNN.Then the pandemic happened. International flights were suspended in March along with the closure of archaeological sites and museums. Commercial flights did not resume until July.OBG calculates that tourism represented over 9% of Egypt’s GDP in 2019, and while domestic tourism continued to some extent, Graham added, international tourism collapsed. The International Monetary Fund (IMF) has downgraded its forecast for tourism spending in Egypt this fiscal year from USD 17.8 billion to USD 2.7 billion.Tourists took photos in March at Djoser's step pyramid in Saqqara, which reopened this month after a multi-million dollar restoration.

Tourists took photos in March at Djoser’s step pyramid in Saqqara, which reopened this month after a multi-million dollar restoration.

MOHAMED EL-SHAHED / AFP / AFP via Getty Images

Egypt had more than 107,000 confirmed cases and more than 6,200 deaths from Covid-19 at the time of writing, and more than 1.00 cases per John Hopkins University last week. New deaths and cases peaked in June. As the pandemic rages on, the tourism sector is regrouping. In July, some attractions reopened, including the Great Pyramids of Giza and hotels that have received government safety certificates showing that they are in compliance with World Health Organization (WHO) guidelines. More archaeological sites reopened in September and the Egyptian government announced further measures in support of the sector, including extending the visa fee waiver for the tourist hotspots Luxor, Aswan, the Red Sea and South Sinai until April 2021 and the Delay in repayment of utility bills and debts for tourist companies.Amr Karim, general manager of Travco Travel, one of Egypt’s largest tour operators, said after a “sharp drop” there has been a “gradual increase in beach holidays” over the past three months, with bookings coming from across Europe. Visitors to Egypt are currently required to present a negative PCR test certificate upon arrival, issued no later than 72 hours prior to departure. However, some airports on the coast are allowed to do a $ 30 PCR test and then quarantine until they get their certificate results.

Travco enforces WHO regulations and disinfects hotel rooms, public spaces and vehicles while employees use face masks, disinfection tools and social distancing. Karim notes that the percentage of older travelers has declined while the number of travelers under 50 has increased and that tourists, by and large, are sticking to their hotels.

He anticipates a “boom” in tourism to ancient sites by the third quarter of 2021.

“The Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities has made monumental efforts in recent years to improve and illuminate Egypt’s archaeological treasures,” Karim cited new archaeological sites, including the parade of 22 royal mummies from the Egyptian Museum’s new home at the National Museum of Egyptian Civilization and construction of the Grand Egyptian Museum (GEM). Grand Egyptian Museum Work - April 2019

A giant statue of Rameses II is in the Grand Egyptian Museum in Cairo during construction in 2019.

Mohamed-El-Shahed / AFP / Getty Images

After years of preparatory work, these efforts will culminate in the opening of the GEM in 2021. The huge new museum in Cairo – nearly half a million square feet and built for over $ 1 billion – is nearing completion the site of the Giza pyramids. Treasures contained therein include an 83-ton granite statue of Ramses the Great (20 meters) and over 5,000 artifacts from King Tutankhamun’s burial chamber – the first time the blockbuster has been exhibited in the same location.It is “the most important cultural project in the world,” explains Hawass, and many roads lead back there: the 59 sarcophagi from Saqqara will be transferred to the GEM, where they will be displayed opposite another large collection of wooden coffins in Luxor in 2019.

But if the pandemic continues, there is no guarantee that tourists will be there to see them in the numbers that many in the industry and beyond have relied on.

The IMF had already predicted in August that tourism in Egypt would return to pre-crisis levels by the second half of 2022. Graham says, unlike historical slumps in tourism, the forecast is “not necessarily related to what is going on in Egypt”. Instead, the pandemic response in European countries and their return quarantine policies are highlighted as key factors in determining whether people will travel.

“It’s difficult to make predictions in the status quo,” says Karim. “It all depends on the medical revelations and vaccines underway to fight the Covid-19 pandemic … we hope for the best.”

Hawass remains optimistic – understandable given he’s been involved with the GEM for two decades – and is optimistic that 2021 will be better than 2020.

“I really think Egypt is safer than other countries,” he says. “We need tourists back.”

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