CAIRO – The resumption of direct flights between Cairo and Moscow is giving Egypt’s tourism sector a boost and the expected arrival of Christian tourists participating in the Holy Family tour should be grounds for even more economic optimism.

Hundreds of Russian tourists arrived in Cairo April 11 when Russia resumed direct flights to Egypt for the first time in 30 months. Egyptians are looking for a Russian tourist influx to revitalise a tourism sector that has undergone a major recession in the past two years.

“This [the resumption of flights from Russia] is a positive sign,” said Elhamy el-Zayat, a tourism investor and the former head of the Federation of Tourism Chambers, the independent guild of tourism workers and investors. “We have high hopes that the flow of Russian tourists will go back to pre-flight suspension levels.”

Russia suspended flights to Egypt in November 2015 after one of its passenger planes was bombed after take-off from Sharm el-Sheikh. All 224 passengers and crew members on board were killed.

The Russian flight suspension caused a huge loss to Egypt’s tour­ism sector. Before 2015, approxi­mately 3 million Russian tourists visited the country every year. The Russian decision encouraged West­ern governments, including the United Kingdom, Italy and Germany, to take similar moves.

Hundreds of thousands of Egyptian tourism workers lost their jobs, Egypt lost billions of dollars in tourism revenues and rival regional destinations — Turkey, Greece, Lebanon and Israel — experienced an upturn in tourism.

Egyptians said they hope that the direct flights from Moscow to Cairo will renew the tourism sector. They also look for adding flights from Russia to Red Sea resorts such as Hurghada and Sharm el-Sheikh.

The first direct flight by Russia’s largest air carrier Aeroflot arrived at Cairo International Airport on April 11, carrying 120 Russian tourists. A second Aeroflot flight reached Cairo four days later.

Aeroflot said it would operate three flights a week from Moscow to Cairo on Saturdays, Mondays and Wednesdays with return flights from Cairo to Moscow on Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays. Daily flights between Cairo and Moscow are to resume June 12 to accommodate an expected increase in demand during Russia’s hosting of the FIFA World Cup.

The resumption of flights from Russia comes when Egypt’s tourism sector has witnessed noticeable improvements, including tens of thousands of tourism workers returning to their jobs, said Adel Abdel Razik, a member of the Federation of Tourism Chambers.

“Tourist facilities had to lay off a large number of workers during the recession,” Abdel Razik said. “Now, however, with the sector coming back to life, most of the tourist facilities are able to bring their workers back.”

In 2010, the tourism sector employed about 12% of Egypt’s overall workforce. An estimated 14.7 million tourists, mostly from Europe, visited the country that year. As of 2017, that figure had more than halved, although year-on-year statistics indicated that tourism numbers were rising.

The suspensions brought tourism revenues in 2016 down to $3.4 billion, from $6.1 billion in 2015. Tourism revenues in 2017,

however, totalled $7.6 billion. There are hopes that tourism numbers and revenues will return to near pre-revolution figures in 2018.

Abdel Razik said the return of Russian tourists could encourage other countries to send their tourists back. “This is everybody’s hope,” he said.

Things are unlikely to return to normal until the resumption of direct flights to Sharm el-Sheikh and Hurghada, something Egyptian aviation officials are to discuss with their Russian counterparts in May.

Russian tourists can still travel to the popular Red Sea resorts but only after disembarking in Cairo and using domestic flights, which is more costly than direct flights.

Abdel Razik expressed hopes that direct charter flights to the Red Sea resorts would resume before the end of this year.

Whether direct flights to Sharm el-Sheikh or Hurghada are resumed or not, Cairo is also banking on the arrival of Christian pilgrims for the Holy Family tour to assist its tourism sector.

Last October, Roman Catholic Pope Francis recognised Egypt as an official pilgrimage site. Egypt expects to receive the first Christian pilgrims in June.

The Holy Family tour includes 18 sites visited by Mary and Joseph when they fled to Egypt with Jesus more than 2,000 years ago to escape the wrath of King Herod. The Tourism Ministry has refurbished some of the sites, ministry spokeswoman Randa Gohar said.

The overhaul, she said, included very ancient churches and monasteries that mark stops by the Holy Family in Egypt.

The Tourism Ministry is looking to attract hundreds of thousands of pilgrims for the Holy Family tour.

“We will do everything possible to reach this goal,” Gohar said. “There are a lot of treasures in this country that tourists deserve to see.”

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