Could Egypt’s Ambitious Tourism Growth Plan Pose Challenges?

June 9, 2024


This article was first published in June’s print edition of Business Monthly.

Egypt’s tourism sector is on fire. Government data shows foreign visits reached an all-time high of over 14.9 million last year, adding 3.62 million visitors from a year earlier (27.7% growth).

The government needs to maintain the sector’s annual growth between 25% and 30% for five years to achieve its goal of doubling the number of arrivals to 30 million annually by 2028.

That would require a lot of investment. According to the State Information Service (SIS), as of September, Egypt has 216,000 hotel rooms “capable of accommodating 15 [million] to 16 million tourists annually … Thus, there is a pressing need to construct what was built over a span of 70 to 80 years within just four years.”

Such an ambitious plan comes with risks, as fast-paced construction typically increases in usually tranquil locations, disrupting vacationers and residents. Also, as tourist numbers increase beyond a destination’s capacity to handle them, they disrupt residents’ daily routines and pressure infrastructure. Research published by the Faculty of Tourism and Hotels at Alexandria University (FTH) in 2021 said Egypt’s biggest coastal cities have long suffered because of visitors, resulting in “anti-tourism sentiments.”

Too many visitors

The Oxford Dictionary defines “overtourism” as a “situation in which a place of interest is visited by too many tourists.”

Data Appeal, a think tank, said the concept was first used in the context of integrated coastal zones management in 2008 and on X, formally Twitter, in 2012. It played a role in the 2015 municipal elections in Barcelona, and in 2018 overtourism made the shortlist for the Oxford Dictionary’s Word of the Year.

MDPI, a research platform, said overtourism is “aggravated by seasonality; too much adverse visitor impact (e.g., noise, rowdiness and other annoyances); [and] too much physical impact on the visitor economy (e.g., touristified city centers and destruction of natural resources).”

According to FTH’s research, this can alienate residents and increase rents, noise, crowding and prices. It also adds pressure to daily life, changes the place’s features and exacerbates the leakage of tourism’s economic benefits.

Governments also suffer from overtourism, given the increased pressures on infrastructure and services, including hygiene and transport. “Tourists create challenges in terms of energy consumption and waste management [as well as] damage to nature through pollution and overuse of natural resources such as water, beaches, forests, and wildlife,” FTH said.

Overtourism also is bad for tourists. An article in National Geographic said it “can ruin the experience of sightseeing for those trapped in long queues, unable to visit museums, galleries and sites without advance booking, incurring escalating costs for basics like food, drink and hotels, and faced with the inability to experience the wonder of a place in relative solitude.”

Those problems are amplified “when tourists’ culture is at odds with the host communities,” an October paper by the World Economic Forum (WEF) said. “This might manifest as breaching of public norms, irritating habits, unacceptable behaviors, place-based displacement and inconsiderate occupation of space.”

Solutions’ foundations

The FTH research paper noted that for Egypt to prepare for overtourism, the government needs the correct building blocks, “regardless of whether [or not] a destination or a visitor attraction is facing overcrowding.”

The first step is “building a comprehensive database [of locations and the number of visitors] updated regularly and developing analytic capabilities to improve … development strategies.” The second is “long-term planning to encourage sustainable growth and mitigate or even ban … overtourism.”

Developing those plans needs to “involve all stakeholders,” including public tourism authorities and the private sector. The government also needs to “find innovative approaches to encourage [the private sector to] invest in infrastructure and sustainability ventures,” the FTH paper said.

Lessons to learn

Europe is becoming a proving ground for the effectiveness of overtourism solutions. In December, CNN listed “some of the most prominent destinations around the world whose overtourism issues made headlines in 2023.” Of the top eight, five were in Europe. Specialized publication Time Out said in an October article that six of the top 12 destinations suffering from overtourism are European.

The WEF report said one of the more popular solutions Europe adopted has been to “shift to quality or higher-yielding tourists.” The problem is that defining “high-value” or “high-yielding” tourists can be tricky. JoAnna Haugen, the founder of Rooted, a consultancy, said that for most destinations, “the term’ high-value travelers’ notes they are likely to spend more, stay long, and disperse beyond hotspots.” That means “more money [from] fewer people.”

However, she stressed those travelers may have a more destructive impact on the local tourism economy, as they tend to consume more and have a carefree attitude compared to “socially conscious” travelers.

Another solution is “dispersing tourists outside hotspots,” Haugen said. The straightforward approach is introducing (or increasing) fees to access popular destinations. To enter Venice, tourists must pay 5 euros from 8:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. as of April. Meanwhile, Barcelona now requires non-residents to pay both a citywide surcharge and a regional tourist tax.

However, those charges may not be enough to create “sufficient interest to go off the beaten track,” the WEF said. That is partly because “social media influencers and travel writers continue to give attention to touristic hotspots.”

Some governments have tried “advocacy and awareness campaigns against overtourism,” WEF said. However, the report doubts “whether appeals to tourists asking them to curb irresponsible behaviors have had any impact.”

Long-term solutions

Overtourism is a perpetually increasing risk. The UN Tourism (UNWTO) estimates the number of tourists will increase by 300 million between 2019 and 2030 to reach 1.8 billion.

One long-term solution is for governments to develop and market destination dupes. They “are destinations that are a little unexpected, sometimes more affordable, but every bit as delightful as the tried-and-true places travelers love,” said Melanie Fish, chief trend tracker for Expedia Brands, a digital travel platform. “Destination dupes are the latest travel trend for 2024.”

Selective investing is also essential. Giang Thi Phi, a professor in the Faculty of Humanities at Aalborg University in Denmark, said in a research paper, “Those investing in tourism should support initiatives that elevate local priorities and needs, and not simply exercise a model of maximum extraction for shareholders in the supply chain.”

He stressed that “national tourist offices and destination management organizations must support development that is nuanced [and] in tune with the local backdrop rather than simply mimicking mass-produced products and experiences.”

However, governments and tourist service providers need to take a measured approach when “redirecting tourism beyond popular honeypots like urban heritage sites or overcrowded beaches … to avoid shifting the problem elsewhere,” the WEF report said.

Governments also need to manage the use of the phrase “overtourism.” The WEF report said it is crucial to “avoid the rise of moral panics and the swell of anti-tourism social movements … While simply cutting back on tourist numbers seems like a logical response, whether the economic tradeoffs of fewer tourists will be tolerated is another thing altogether.”

Nevertheless, the WEF warned against “pretending the phenomenon does not exist, or dwelling on semantics, [which] won’t solve the problem.”