Mar 2020 Interview with H.E. Dr. Rania Al-Mashat, Minister of Tourism, Egypt
Prisma Reports (PR): Prisma Reports (PR): Could you tell us something about your presence at the recent World Travel Market (WTM) in London, England? Could you also share some of the highlights of the event?
Rania Al-Mashat (RAM): November’s WTM in London was a very different event for Egypt this year than any other year, for more than one reason. We went to the WTM with the highest tourism revenue in Egyptian history: $12.6 billion, there has been a very steep rebound in our tourism numbers and also, a week before the WTM, the UK lifted its travel ban to Sharm el-Sheikh — so this was also a very positive step for us in London. In addition, during the WTM and for the first time in 40 years, the Ministry of Tourism received an award — the Global Leaders Award for outstanding contribution to the industry. We were very pleased that our presence in London this year was very different from each and every other year and this was reflected in our booth, which had a sustainability corner as the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) are very important to the way we do our tourism today. In November 2018, we launched the Egypt Tourism Reform Program (E–TRP). At the heart of the E–TRP is implementing the SDGs on different levels. Our objective is that at least one individual from each Egyptian household is working in tourism.
The Grand Egyptian Museum in Cairo is opening at the end of 2020 as well, so we had replicas of Tutankhamun’s jewelry and a throne. Also, during 2019, Egypt enjoyed many visits from celebrities, including Alicia Keys, Orlando Bloom, Red Hot Chili Peppers and Kourtney Kardashian. It has really become a destination for many celebrities and what they say about their experiences — in their own words on their Instagram feeds — was also featured in our booth, as a way to tell the world what people are seeing in Egypt today. Diving for us is also extremely important and we take our diving sites very seriously in order to protect them for future generations. Many of our diving sites have been given Green Fins certification for their environmental standards and that was something that we wanted to show in our booth. There was a virtual reality section in the booth where people could actually see the Sinai trails, the mountain hikes, using 3D technology. We also had Egyptian music and you could see your name written in hieroglyphics. It was a very special participation for us, we were very happy being there this year and it coincided with the “Tutankhamun: Treasures of the Golden Pharaoh” exhibition at the Saatchi Gallery in London to celebrate the centenary of Howard Carter’s discovery. For us, Tutankhamun is the world’s most famous tourist: he has traveled and some of his collections have traveled to Los Angeles, Paris and now London. All of this is to create excitement around his full collection, which will be featured in the Grand Egyptian Museum at the end of 2020.
RP: Since you mentioned the Grand Egyptian Museum, is it going to be launched in November 2020?
(RAM): We have not announced the exact date yet but it is going to be in the fourth quarter of 2020.
PR: What, in your view, will be the impact of the Grand Egyptian Museum? As you know, other important museums are opening around the world, for example, in Abu Dhabi and Qatar. What makes Egypt’s unique?
(RAM): Egypt is one of the world’s oldest civilizations. When you come to look at our Grand Egyptian Museum, there is so much more to it than Egyptology and Egyptian customs. We are really celebrating the genius of humanity. Before the invention of technology, before the invention of tools as we know them today, before the understanding of energy and mystic and spiritual details, Egyptians were involved in these things a long time ago. When we look at tourism trends globally, you find that cultural tourism has gone down around the world. We believe that, with the opening of the Grand Egyptian Museum, we will see cultural tourism increasing not just in Egypt but globally because of the awareness that the museum will create. Despite having Egyptian monuments in Paris’ Louvre or in the British Museum, this would be the only museum in the world that is dedicated to one civilization. It is the only museum in the world where you are able to enjoy Egyptian artifacts and at the same time take a selfie with the Giza pyramids. You cannot beat that.
So, when you do come to visit the Grand Egyptian Museum, you are able to see the full collection of Tutankhamun — 5,000 pieces — it is the most famous of all time because of its beauty. At the same time, you are also able to enjoy the view of the pyramids, which is possibly every child’s dream. So, it is all there in one combination. There is also an airport that is about 20 minutes away, which means you can come, take a look at the museum, but also take a plane to move on to Luxor, Sharm el-Sheikh or Hurghada. Sphinx International Airport is going to increase connectivity, where you can combine cultural tourism with sea and sun.
PR: It is true that when I came here with my son he really enjoyed viewing the pyramids and it was a unique experience, as was hearing about the development of pyramids, how many stones they are built with and their weight, for instance.
(RAM): They were built without cranes by humans thinking in ways that defy our current imagination. For us, the museum is a big investment as a government — it is a $1 billion investment and one of the national projects of Egypt. In addition to the Grand Egyptian Museum, other museums are being opened in Egypt. It is again a way for us, as Egyptian people, to gift the world with the protection of our civilization and what humans can provide to the world.
PR: Could you give us a further glimpse into the E–TRP program?
(RAM): In the past, when you think about the tourism sector in Egypt, it was always very reactive. We wanted to put together with our stakeholders, both domestic and international, a program that helps unleash the potential of the sector. Tourism in Egypt is 15% of gross domestic product. As I mentioned, our goal is to have at least one individual in each Egyptian household working in tourism. This requires that certain structural reforms are in place, which means that we go into the very details of each and every aspect.
For example, administrative reforms: institutional reforms that have to do with the staff in the ministry, the training of the people that I call the software of the industry, making sure that the staff that works in hotels, companies and different services are up to par. Also, making sure that the statistics that we have on tourism are up to date and making sure that the schools in Egypt explain the importance of the sector, so that we introduce the ethics of tourism in the curricula. There is a whole pillar of institutional reforms that goes into the human aspect, the data aspect and the educational aspect of the sector. We also have legislative reforms: the tourism law in Egypt is a 1970s law, so it is very old. Many things have happened since then and we want to make sure that we are taking into account all new trends in legislation that are taking place globally.
Then there is promotional marketing, which is a very important aspect of tourism today. That involves not only a nice picture in a brochure, as we know that travelers are very smart nowadays. Everyone looks at their phone to make sure that the story they hear is consistent with reality. So, we are doing a lot of promotion and marketing digitally. We are trying to maximize on the tools that technology has provided to tourism ministries. We are involved in several partnerships with Discovery, Expedia, Ctrip in China, Beautiful Destinations and CNN.
All of these partnerships allow us to provide a realistic picture of Egypt, one that sheds light on destination branding and that includes making people understand that we have spectacular Siwa, magnificent Marsa Alam, happening Hurghada, lovely Luxor, awesome Alexandria and so on. Egypt is a destination that has so many places to visit and, in this way, we are able to achieve our goal of one individual in each household working in tourism — because sustainable tourism is about people and places and, in every destination, people have different traits, customs and food. We try to make the traveler aware of the local culture and that also provides for sustainability when it comes to the SDGs related to decent jobs, protecting areas under sea and gender equality, for example. Also under marketing and promotion, in addition to destination branding we have our other campaign, which is “People to People — P2P”. Egyptian people are people of pride, positivity and passion, and we are creating that association between Egyptians and travelers from around the world that come and meet the people and understand their culture.
Alongside reforms, marketing and promotion, the third pillar, as we mentioned earlier, is the Grand Egyptian Museum. Then comes tourism development and infrastructure. In that, for the first time in 14 years, we have updated the hospitality criteria for Egyptian hotels. The first reform had the software — which are the people; the fourth reform has the hardware — which are the buildings, the kitchens. We want to make sure that new types of hotels are included in the classification: boutique hotels, apartments hotels, heritage hotels and eco-lodges, and that the way we rank them — 5,4,3,2 stars — is in line with international standards. This was an effort that we made with the United Nations’ World Tourism Organization (UNWTO), to ensure that international standards are taken into account. The vision under E–TRP is to strengthen Egypt’s competitiveness by implementing these structural reforms that are in line with international standards. So, a key element has been the “hardware”. The fifth pillar has to do with international tourism trends, which has three focus elements: female empowerment, digitalization and green tourism. We have several initiatives under female empowerment that we designed with the World Economic Forum (WEF) and the National Council for Women of Egypt, and we are the first country in Africa and the Middle East to do this. Closing the gender gap accelerator is a three-year program where stakeholders from the public and private sector work together to make sure that the policies we develop for different industries — tourism is connected to some 70 industries — give equal opportunities for women, equal pay and that women reach leadership roles. Together with the United Nations Development Programme and the National Council for Women, we implemented the Gender Equality Seal — we are the first country in the world to initiate this and we encourage hotels and companies to apply.
When it comes to digitalization, we want to make sure that there are more start-ups in tourism and that they benefit from increased traffic. In green tourism, 10% of our hotel rooms are now Green Star compliant and we encourage less use of electricity or the use of solar panels. We are climate conscious and know that there are tour operators and travelers that focus on this and that it affects their decision.
Overall, the E–TRP was launched in November 2018 from parliament and it was created jointly with the private sector and stakeholders. Inside the E–TRP there is a focus on international partnerships with UNWTO, the World Travel and Tourism Council, the International Finance Corporation, the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank and all of our partners, because tourism is a strategic sector so we want to make sure that whatever we do we do using international standards and we create more awareness, not only about tourism in Egypt but tourism globally. We believe in sustainable tourism, which is not about people coming one time, leaving and destroying the environment, but making sure that people repeat their visits and that they are engrained within the local culture.
PR: You mentioned your empowering women program designed with WEF. When did the program started and are you going to present it at the 2020 WEF in Davos?
(RAM): Yes, I signed the program in New York in September 2019 and I will be going to Davos. Right now, we have private-sector participation from one of the biggest companies in Egypt, for example, as well as another company connected with start-ups. These are the local stakeholders and then, of course, we will also have some international stakeholders. It is a very ambitious program with the idea of creating platforms to help the international community as well as the local community to raise awareness on gender equality, which is SDG number 5.
PR: What are the specific efforts that your ministry is putting in place for the US market?
(RAM): Of course, the US market is very important for us because Americans are high spenders and they focus very much on culture. They really love our Nile cruises and cultural visits. Our biggest ambassador for cultural tourism is Dr. Zahi Hawass, Egyptian archaeologist and former Minister of State for Antiquities Affairs. He is going on a tour of the US for six weeks in the summer of 2020 and the Ministry of Tourism is partnering with him. He is going to 20 states and in each state there will be an outreach program so that people can get to know the Grand Egyptian Museum and find out the latest information about Egyptian tourism. We believe that this can be an important stepping stone for increasing US tourism to Egypt.
PR: How are you going to strengthen the Egyptian brand in other territories?
(RAM): If you look at the E–TRP, you will see that one of our objectives is to diversify our markets. I always say there are 193 countries globally and we want people from everywhere. In the past, the private sector focused on very specific markets so when something happens to those markets it hits you and the decline is very sharp. When you are diversified you are able to recover from any shock very quickly. Together with the private sector, we have been more aggressive in terms of marketing campaigns — today, we had talks with our colleagues in Bulgaria, for example.
The idea is to open new type of businesses as well as to understand international travel trends. Today, travelers want experiences, they want adventures. As an example, in Time magazine, the Red Sea Mountain Trail was chosen as one of the top 100 places to visit. Having the Sinai trail, the Red Sea Mountain Trail, kite surfing in the Red Sea — there is so much that we are trying to shade light on. It is not just the pyramids or antiquities but also the oasis in Siwa where you can go for wellness. We are trying to tap into all the unique features that Egypt has to offer.
What was very significant this year is that we had the highest tourism revenues but the number of tourists is not yet at the peak. This means that people who came stayed longer and spent more money as there were more activities for them to do. By the end of 2019, hopefully we get to the peak numbers of 2010 in terms of tourists. By then, we will be very close to 40 million tourists.
Finally, I want to add that the political relationship that Egypt has with many countries, including the US, is one that is very strategic and important. We are trying to make sure that all Egyptian people benefit from these political relationships: tourism is an open door because every dollar that every traveler spends in the country is going to have an impact somehow to someone’s life, whether is a woman making handicraft, a car driver who will take you from one place to another or a tour guide who will explain all the beautiful places in Egypt to you.