We hope the Serbian tourists will come to see the new wonders of Egypt
Considering that huge and fascinating museums are being built in new cities, as are new airports and roads, Egypt was one of the most successful countries in 2020. Serbian tourists remained loyal to Egypt throughout this challenging year. We spoke about this and many other topics with H.E. Mr Amr Aljowaily, the Ambassador of Egypt to Serbia.
Egypt and Serbia have had excellent political relations from the era of both kingdoms, with the Yugoslav King taking refuge in Cairo for a while. After a short period of a decline during the rule of the Muslim Brotherhood, we, once again, have excellent relations. How do you assess the relations between the two countries?
Cairo was the first seat of any Serbian envoy in Africa and the Arab world. That has spurred diplomatic activities in the wider sense of the term meaning economic, commercial and cultural relations and other types of relations between the two countries. Current relations are now at probably one of their peaks. We’ve had three active years of cultural relations that are developing further. I believe that, in 2021, there will be a culmination of this spirit of activities that took place at high levels following the signing of memoranda of understanding and several other agreements, and implementing a number of joint mechanisms. I’m happy to share with you the information that, in 2021, the two countries will hopefully have the meeting of the Joint Economic Committee after 11 years of recess, as well as the first joint Business Council meeting on the margin of the aforementioned Joint Economic Committee meeting. I really do hope that 2021 will be the year of diplomacy and commerce for Egypt and Serbia.
We have seen the renaissance of Egyptian tourism after the Arab Spring. How much Serbian tourists contribute? Are they considered loyal tourists?
I use the term loyalty because this is very much the characteristic that I have discovered in Serbian tourists coming to Egypt. When I first came here, in January 2018, the first thing that I did was to ask my colleagues at the embassy to check their records and see who were the five tourists who had the highest number of issued Egyptian visas in the last five years. Subsequently, we offered these people free trips to Egypt, and they chose actually to come back with their families or friends. I was pleasantly surprised by that. Some of these tourists had been to Egypt close to 30 times in the last maybe five or plus years. Can you imagine that? That is never a result of only a good promotion, but also of satisfaction.
“We are building three megacities and a handful of museums at the same time, which will all be connected via motorways and railway”
In 2019, we saw the rise in the number of charter flights in the amount of 55% between the two countries, and in 2020, there was an estimation of a further 50% increase, but then the pandemic happened. Nevertheless, tourists from Serbia went to Egypt very frequently in 2020. Egypt is the third most preferred destination of Serbian tourists. What are the segments of potential growth in 2021 and once the pandemic subsides?
2020 was a challenging year for the tourism industry and the civil aviation industry. When I came to Serbia in 2018, there were about 28,000 Serbian tourists visiting Egypt annually. In 2019, that number doubled to 56,000, but I don’t think that will happen this year. However, Serbian tourists remained loyal, and maybe Egypt is the number 3 destination in total numbers, but in terms of air-destinations, it is the number one. The reason for that is that Egypt has never closed its borders to Serbian tourists. That again is a reflection of how strong the friendship between the two countries is and how important this interaction through tourism is. I am absolutely confident that this will not only be maintained but will even grow through the number of new developments that we are working on in Egypt. One of them is eco-tourism. I would like to invite you and your readers to check Eco-Egypt experiences on Instagram and Facebook. This is a new dimension of tourism that Egypt is launching for individual travelers who would like to explore Egypt by bike or on foot and who would like to become one with nature on the coastline or in the Sahara. Cultural tourism has merged with the classical one.
What cultural activities are you planning in 2021?
Ljiljana Habjanović-Đurović has endorsed the newly translated book by the famous Egyptian writer Sukheir El Kalamawi called “Start from the Beginning”. This is our newest product of cooperation. There is no better way for societies to get to know each other than through culture. The best way to get to know a culture is to visit a country it comes from, and the second-best is through music, books and films. Serbian Culture Minister Maja Gojković and I have talked about commemorating the 60th anniversary of the Non-Aligned Movement. There will be several activities to mark that anniversary. Of course, our cooperation with the Arabic Chair at the Belgrade University (everybody there speaks such an elegant variant of the Arabic language) is excellent. I would also like to recommend the book written by the Egyptian writer Nagib Mahfouz, who is also a Nobel Prize winner.
In January 2019, we visited the St Anthony’s Monastery near Hurghada and St Paul’s Monastery. You mentioned the undiscovered gems of the Mediterranean coast near El Alamein and the beautiful Alexandria. Will we open that door soon?
St. Anthony comes under one of the Red Sea governments which means that it can be visited during a one-day trip to Hurghada, which is the number one destination. I visited so many beautiful monasteries in Serbia and I know how embedded the phenomenon of monasteries is in the rich Serbian culture. For us, the Egyptians, the Red Sea is mainly a winter getaway while the Mediterranean Sea is the most popular summer destination. Alexandria, of course, is the oldest and the biggest city on the Mediterranean. There is a megaproject under development currently – the construction of the new capital on the Mediterranean called El Alamein, the site of the WW2 battle. With its turquoise waters and white sands, as a Mediterranean destination, El Alamein is different from the Red Sea where the sand is yellowish and the sea is of a different shade of blue.
“Egypt has merged classical with cultural tourism and that’s its main asset”
The new Grand Egyptian Museum seems fascinating. We had a sneak peek in 2019. Can you tell us more about the project?
The abbreviation for the Grand Egyptian Museum – GEM – has a lovely meaning in English, and this museum is truly a gem. It’s the largest investment in the culture of Egypt ever and probably one of the largest in the world, amounting to $1 billion. For the first time ever, the Museum will exhibit and present the entire collection of Tutankhamun in one place so the visitors will be able to immerse themselves in Tutankhamun’s life and golden era. The Museum is located on the Giza Plateau and is in the close proximity to the Giza pyramids and the Sphinx. Since these sites are very close to each other, tourists with a very tight schedule will be able now to see the ancient civilization, artefacts and antiquities exhibited at the Museum, as well as the site of one and the only remaining old-world wonder – the pyramids. The GEM is also close to the toll station of the Cairo-Alexandria motorway. So, tourists can visit all these sites in one go and then take a two-hour drive to Alexandria. The Museum is also 20 minutes away from the new Sphinx Airport. There’s another new museum that is going to be opened this year. It’s called the National Museum of Egyptian Civilization and is almost the mirror image of the GEM. The GEM is the largest museum in the world dedicated to one civilization – Ancient Egypt. It does not cover the Greco-Roman Egypt or Coptic Egypt or Islamic or Ottoman Egypt. The other museum that I just mentioned – the Museum of Egyptian Civilization – is the opposite. It showcases Egypt through different phases and stages of its history. These two make a great combination. I would also like to mention a new museum in Sharm El Sheikh and several other resorts cities like Hurghada. So, 2021 is going to be a remarkable year for culture.
The New Capital is growing. When will it be finished and did you choose the name?
Right now, there is a handball match taking place in the New Capital under the auspices of the First World Handball Championship hosted on the African continent. The new capital has a number of facilities that are opened to visitors – the largest Orthodox Cathedral in Africa, one of the largest mosques in Africa, a big conference centre, etc. The government ministries are expected to relocate to the new capital mid-this year. I’m confident that the capital will get its name when the time is right. I would also like to give you a quick overview of megaprojects that are being implemented in Egypt as we speak. These are the three new capitals – the new capital of Egypt, the new capital of the Red Sea called Al Jalila, and the one we mentioned before. These three megacities are being built all at the same time with the view of changing the demographic and economic distribution. Plus, several major motorways of the combined length of 12,000km are being built which is a kind of upgrade that we’ve never seen in our modern history before. They are essential for budding economic activity. We have also started building a railway between Ain Sokhna, 300km north of Hurghada, and El Alamein that would facilitate the connection between the Red Sea and the Mediterranean, as well as the transport of goods and individuals. All this creates tremendous opportunities for Serbian businesses too.