Egypt has been on the ropes since investors and tourists, two vital cash streams, fled after the uprising that toppled Hosni Mubarak in 2011.
Once a darling of frontier market investors, with growth of about 7 percent a year, the economy has sputtered along, growing by just 2 percent in the financial year that ended in June.
Tourism accounted for ten percent of economic activity in Mubarak’s era, but sporadic bloody clashes, like those which took place outside the U.S. Embassy last week during a protest over a film being produced in the United States which protesters said insulted Prophet Mohammed, have led some overseas governments to maintain travel warnings and resulted in many tour operators avoiding Egypt.
The ancient city of Luxor relies heavily on tourism and it is easy to see why. There is no shortage of attractions like the Luxor Temple, built by Pharaoh Amenhotep III in the 1300s BC apparently for the festival of Opet, which used to involve several days or weeks of celebration in the name of the ruler.
The temple has recently hosted the opening gala of the first Luxor Egyptian and European Film Festival organized by Noon Foundation for Culture and Arts (NOONCA) in Egypt and Europe and supported by the Egyptian Ministry of Culture and public and private organizations.
The event, held between 17th to the 22rd of September 2012, celebrated what Egypt has to offer in terms of two key industries: tourism and film.
On the second day of the event, the streets around Luxor Temple were empty. Boats that ferried visitors to the Ancient Egyptian sites along the Nile bobbed idly at their moorings and horses used to taking tourists around the city waited in the shade, their bony flanks showing signs of hunger.
General Manager of the Egypt Tourist Authority in Luxor, Osama Abdel Hafiz explained the importance of tourism in Luxor.
“Luxor depends completely on the tourism industry. The majority of Luxor citizens work in tourism, it’s their main source of income,” Abdel Hafiz said.
“We are taking advantage of this festival to encourage tourism and send a message to the whole world that Luxor enjoys security and stability and we invite citizens from Europe, the U.S. and the Far East to visit Luxor and enjoy our culture and heritage,” he added.
The Egypt Tourist Authority (ETA) supports some 35 festivals each year. The ETA’s Undersecretary Head of The Domestic Tourism Sector, Magdi Selim, says such events are key to the country’s promotional strategy.
“Events like this help boost tourism through international media coverage. When this coverage is seen abroad it assures people that there is a stable environment in Egypt which helps in bringing tourism back to its previous levels. I look back to 2010 when we received 15 million tourists and we hope that through such events and festivals tourism will return back to how it was,” said Selim.
Luxor is an obvious choice for a touristic festival, the abundance of temples and tombs put it at the top of any visitors’ itinerary.
The festival screenings are open to the public but when the lights come up after the short film The Attic’ by Egyptian director Mohamed Shawky, the audience is sparse and made up mostly of jury members.
Dr. Samir Seif is a film director and Jury President of the Luxor Film Festival. He says boosting tourism in Egypt should yield immediate benefits to the local and national economy, but that reinvigorating an ailing film industry is a much bigger battle.
Every movie industry has what people nostalgically refer to as a Golden Age and while Dr. Seif is wary of over-romanticising the issue, he admits that today the Egyptian film industry is far from its peak in the 1940s and 50s.
While politics has been the top of the public agenda for the last few years, Dr. Seif hopes that interest in films will be reinvigorated in the coming years. He hopes for a second Golden Age just as there is now a Second Republic in political terms.
“I think that the return of the Egyptian film industry to its Golden Age depends on two factors. The first is trying to create a new generation of film makers through the spread of film schools and the high cinema institutions which will help develop the skills of young film makers. On the other hand it is a case of raising audience intellect by exposing them to different cinematic experiences than those on television, which will lead them to demand a higher caliber of films,” he said.
Dr Seif is keen to remind people of the economic value of the film industry. He sees great potential in expanding a sector that can export to millions of consumers across the region. Egyptian Arabic is of course one of the most widely understood dialects due to its former dominance in Middle Eastern film and TV.
“It was always said that film making was the second largest source of income for the Egyptian economy after cotton in the 1940s and 50s, but this is no longer the case,” said Dr. Seif.
“Egypt produces Arabic films in a widely-used dialect in this region of the world, and by that I mean almost 20 Arab countries. This would create a broad market and a big source of income which would undoubtedly benefit the Egyptian economy,” he added.
The government supports this point of view with the Ministry of Culture committing 20 million Egyptian pounds (USD 3.3 million) in grants to film makers in 2012. This has helped 37 films into production, including 17 full length feature films. The Ministry of Culture provides 50 percent of the film budget and asks for no returns.
The ministry has pledged to continue its funding next year and to maintain its support of the Luxor Egyptian and European Film Festival. It is also behind the African Film Festival held in March.
The Cairo Film Festival is due to run in November after being canceled last year because of security concerns.
There are also plans for a festival in the city of Ismailia.