Image: Egypt
Matt Ford  /  AP
A delegation of U.S. tourism groups visits the sound and light show April 23 at the Egyptian pyramids. U.S. tour operators and Egyptian officials are hoping to convince hesitant international travelers that Egypt is now safe and stable enough to resume large-scale tourism.
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updated 5/5/2011 12:55:11 PM ET 2011-05-05T16:55:11

U.S. tour operators and Egyptian officials are hoping to convince hesitant international travelers that Egypt is now safe and stable enough to resume large-scale tourism.

A delegation of representatives from the U.S. tourism industry visited the country over Easter weekend, meeting with officials from the Egyptian Ministry of Tourism and the U.S. Embassy.

Malaka Hilton, CEO of Admiral Travel International Inc., based in Sarasota, Fla., said 90 percent of her company's trips to Egypt have been canceled since the revolution that ousted President Hosni Mubarak in February.

"There's still that level of uncertainty with what's happening with the government," she said. "The traveler is saying, until it's stable on the government side, that is when we will come back."

Tourism accounts for roughly 14 percent of jobs in Egypt, and the drop in visitors has worsened the economic troubles that helped fuel the revolution.

There are no lines at the King Tut exhibit in the museum in Cairo next to Tahrir Square, and the streets of Giza, home of the pyramids, are nearly empty except for the local residents who depend on tourism for their livelihood.

Ahmed Al Zawawy offers horse and camel rides to people visiting the pyramids, but since the Jan. 25 revolution he's sold three camels and six horses to feed his family and his sole remaining horse. "That is my end, after that I don't know what I will do," Al Zawawy said. "I am living day by day."

At the end of April, the U.S. Embassy in Cairo allowed families of embassy workers to return, and the State Department downgraded its travel warning to an alert advising U.S. citizens of the "possibility of sporadic unrest," while noting that "the security situation in Luxor, Aswan, and the Red Sea resorts ... continues to be calm."

Complicating the outlook for those considering a trip to Egypt or other parts of the Middle East are concerns about the impact of the raid on Osama bin Laden's compound. The State Department issued a general travel warning after the raid urging U.S. citizens to "limit their travel outside of their homes and hotels and avoid mass gatherings and demonstrations," due to the "enhanced potential for anti-American violence."

There have also been increased reports of crime in Cairo, with a smaller police presence in the capital than before the revolution. Unrest in other Middle Eastern countries, from civil war in Libya to violent crackdowns in Syria and Yemen, also make the region a hard sell to travelers.

"There is a limbo state that the government is in right now, " said Tony Gonchar, CEO of the American Society of Travel Agents, who, with Hilton, was part of the group visiting Egypt. He added that the U.S. government's "ability to suggest that Egypt is a safe tourist location" is part of what's needed "for Americans to feel the comfort level to come and visit."

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Still, those who do visit Egypt now will find a relative calm, with opportunities for travel upgrades in addition to short lines and small crowds.

"On the whole, the situations are really minimal, and certainly not a danger to our travelers," said Catherine Greteman, CEO of the National Tour Association, also part of the visiting delegation.

Roughly 211,000 foreign visitors came to Cairo in February, a mere 20 percent of the 1.1 million who visited during the same time in 2010, according to the Egyptian government. Visitor numbers improved in March and April to roughly half of the count from last year, according to the Egyptian Travel Authority.

"Even us, we were surprised because beginning the 19th of February we had the first groups coming back. To the Red Sea first, and then to Luxor, and then to Cairo and then the rest of the country," said Amr El-Ezabi of the Egyptian Tourist Authority.

Egypt tourism typically falls off at the end of May as the summer heat increases, then picks up again in the fall and winter. This fall, the normal start of the high season for tourism will coincide with the country's first post-revolution parliamentary elections, followed by presidential elections.

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While the Egyptian government hopes that the number of foreign visitors will return to normal levels, it may be a challenge to convince tourists to visit during the unprecedented election period, especially if there are protests in Egypt and elsewhere in the Mideast.

Mubarak, his sons and many members of his former government are in prison awaiting trial, and there is uncertainty about how the military leadership that's now running the country will transition into a democratically elected government.

But some Egyptian leaders and tour groups are cautiously trying to promote the elections as a unique selling point for travelers.

"I think you can still easily do your normal visit and still have an added value to be present in Egypt during its first democratic election ever taking place in the last 50 or 60 years," El-Ezabi said.

Steve Adamson, a marketing consultant based in Yorkshire, England, took a cruise around the Red Sea in March. He said the ship was barely 50 percent capacity, and the trip was half-off the usual fare. Walking around various Egyptian ports of call, he said, he "didn't notice anything unusual at all — we could have been anywhere. Totally tranquil and very much business as usual."

Copyright 2011 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Photos: The treasures of Egypt

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  1. Desert wonders

    Tourists ride rented horses and camels at the historical site of the Giza Pyramids, near Cairo, Egypt. The pyramids are the only surviving structures from the original list of seven architectural marvels, and were named one of the New Seven Wonders of the World in 2008. (Muhammed Muheisen / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. The Great Sphinx

    The Great Sphinx of Giza, a large half-human, half-lion Sphinx statue on the west bank of the Nile River, near modern-day Cairo, is seen with the Chephren (Khafra) Pyramid in the background. The Great Sphinx is one of the largest single-stone statues on Earth, and is commonly believed to have been built by ancient Egyptians in the 3rd millennium B.C., somewhere between 2520 B.C. and 2494 B.C. (Cris Bouroncle / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. Mysterious mosques

    The Sultan Hassan (R) and the Ar-Rifa'i (L) Mosques are seen in Islamic Cairo, Egypt. The Sultan Hassan Mosque was built between 1356 and 1363 A.D., during the time of Mamluk rule, with stones that historians believe were taken from one of the Great Pyramids of Giza. (Marco Di Lauro / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. Lovely landmark

    The Mosque of Muhammad Ali Pasha is situated in the Citadel of Cairo and commissioned by Muhammad Ali Pasha between 1830 and 1848. This Ottoman mosque is the largest to be built in the first half of the 19th century. The mosque was built in memory of Tusun Pasha, Muhammad Ali's oldest son, who died in 1816. (Gardel Bertrand / Hemis.fr) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. Protecting history

    The Egyptian Museum in Cairo is home to the most extensive collection of ancient Egyptian antiquities in the world. (Gardel Bertrand / Hemis.fr) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. Secluded oasis

    A golfer enjoys a game at the Oberoi House hotel and golfcourse near the Giza pyramid. (Gardel Bertrand / Hemis.fr) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. A shopper's heaven

    The Khan El-Khahili souk, the largest shopping area in Cairo. (Gardel Bertrand / Hemis.fr) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Rising from ruin

    The Maidum pyramid stands on the desert's edge in Bein Sueif, 70 kilometers south of Cairo, and is the first Egyptian pyramid with an aboveground burial chamber. The raised tomb may represent an effort to raise the chamber closer to the sun god. The huge structure is surrounded by the debris from its collapsed casing. (Cris Bouroncle / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. Gorgeous fortress

    Fort Quatbay is a 15th century defensive fortress located on the Mediterranean Sea coast in Alexandria, Egypt. (Gardel Bertrand / Hemis.fr) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. Stories of stories

    The famous Bibliotheque (library) in Alexandria, Egypt is a top attraction. (Gardel Bertrand / Hemis.fr) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. Nile cruise

    The steam ship "Sudan" cruises along the Nile towards Aswan, Egypt. (Bertrand Rieger / Hemis.fr) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. Rooms with a view

    The Old Cataract Hotel is perched atop a hill overlooking the River Nile in Aswan, Egypt. (Bertrand Rieger / Hemis.fr) Back to slideshow navigation
  13. A solid foundation

    The Temple of Horus in Edfu is the second largest temple in Egypt after Karnak and one of the best preserved. It is dedicated to Horus, the falcon-headed god. (Rieger Bertrand / Hemis.fr) Back to slideshow navigation
  14. Architectural marvel

    Tourists explore stone columns decorated with hieroglyphs at the Karnak temple site in Luxor. Few places in Egypt make a more overwhelming and lasting impression, than the apparent chaos of walls, obelisks, columns, statues, stelae and decorated blocks of the Ancient Egyptian Karnak temple complex. (Khaled Desouki / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  15. Writing on the walls

    A Pharaonic mural decorates the walls at the Karnak temple site in Luxor, Egypt. For the last 40 years, the Ancient Egyptian Karnak temple complex has been investigated and restored by a Franco-Egyptian archaeological team with admirable achievements. (Khaled Desouki / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  16. Standing gaurd

    Tourists visit the Colossi of Memnon, two massive stone statues of Pharaoh Amenhotep III. The twin figures stand in the Theban necropolis, across the Nile from the modern city of Luxor. (Khaled Desouki / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  17. Noble Lady's tomb

    The Temple of Queen Hatshepsut in Luxor, Egypt, is built of limestone, rather than sandstone. The "Foremost of Noble Ladies" was the fifth pharaoh of the 18th dynasty of Ancient Egypt, and reigned longer than any other woman of an indigenous Egyptian dynasty. (Bertrand Rieger / Hemis.fr) Back to slideshow navigation
  18. Monumental site

    Construction on the Temple of Abu Simbel lasted for about 20 years, from 1244 B.C., until 1224 B.C. The monument is part of the UNESCO World Heritage Site known as the "Nubian Monuments", which run from Abu Simbel downriver to Philae (near Aswan). (Khaled Desouki / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  19. Ancient monastery

    According to UNESCO, World Heritage Site, Saint Catherines Monastery on the Sinai Penninsula, is the oldest working Christian monastery in the world. (Anita Dunham-Potter / Tripso) Back to slideshow navigation
  20. Stark contrast

    A tourist stands on one of the massive chalk rock formations created as a result of sandstorms, in the White Desert in Farafra, Egypt. (Bertrand Rieger / Hemis.fr) Back to slideshow navigation
  21. A bumpy ride

    Camels look out to the Red Sea at Canyon Beach in Dahab. Camel diving safaris are a popular attraction in South Sinai. (Bertrand Gardel / Hemis.fr) Back to slideshow navigation
  22. Seeing Red

    The Red Sea is the habitat of over 1,000 invertebrate species and 200 corals, and is the world's northernmost tropical sea. The Red Sea is a popular diving, snorkeling and swimming destination. (Chicurel Arnaud / Hemis.fr) Back to slideshow navigation
  23. Time out

    Tourists take a rest on a terrasse in King of Barhein Kingdom street, the main street of Sharm el Sheikh. (Eric Feferberg / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  24. Taking a peak

    A man gets a panoramic view of the volcanic and windblown peaks of the Black desert. (Rieger Bertrand / Hemis.fr) Back to slideshow navigation
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