CAIRO (AP) — At Egypt's Pyramids, the desperation of vendors to sell can be a little frightening for some tourists.
Young men descend on any car with foreigners in it blocks before it reaches the more than 4,500 year-old Wonder of the World. They bang on car doors and hoods, some waving the sticks and whips they use for driving camels, demanding the tourists come to their shop or ride their camel or just give money.
In the southern city of Aswan, tour operator Ashraf Ibrahim was recently taking a group to a historic mosque when a mob of angry horse carriage drivers trapped them inside, trying to force them to take rides. The drivers told Ibrahim to steer business their way in the future or else they'd burn his tourist buses, he said.
Egypt's touts have always been aggressive — but they're more desperate than ever after nearly two years of devastation in the tourism industry, a pillar of the economy.
December, traditionally the start of Egypt's peak season, has brought new pain. Many foreigners stayed away because of the televised scenes of protests and clashes on the streets of Cairo in the battle over a controversial constitution.
Arrivals this month were down 40 percent from November, according to airport officials, speaking on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to release the information.
Tourism workers have little hope that things will get better now that the constitution came into effect this week after a nationwide referendum. The power struggle between Islamist President Mohammed Morsi and the opposition threatens to erupt at any time into more unrest in the streets.
More long term, many in the industry worry ruling Islamists will start making changes like banning alcohol or swimsuits on beaches that they fear will drive tourists away.
"Nobody can plan anything because one day you find that everything might be OK and another that everything is lost. You can't even take a right decision or plan for the next month," said Magda Fawzi, head of Sabena Management.
She's thinking of shutting down her company, which runs two hotels in the Red Sea resort town of Sharm el-Sheikh and four luxury cruise boats on the Nile between the ancient cities of Luxor and Aswan. In one hotel, only 10 of 300 rooms are booked, and only one of her ships is operating, she said. She has already downsized from 850 employees before the revolution to 500.
"I don't think there will be any stability with this kind of constitution. People will not accept it," she said.
Tourism, one of Egypt's biggest foreign currency earners, was gutted by the turmoil of last year's 18-day uprising that toppled autocrat Hosni Mubarak.
Scared off by the upheaval, the number of tourists fell to 9.8 million in 2011 from 14.7 million the year before, and revenues plunged 30 percent to $8.8 billion.
This year, the industry struggled back. By the end of September, 8.1 million tourists had come, injecting $10 billion into the economy. The number for the full year is likely to surpass 2011 but is still considerably down from 2010.
For the public, it has meant a drying up of income, given that tourism provided direct or indirect employment to one in eight Egyptians in 2010, according to government figures.
Poverty swelled at the country's fastest rate in Luxor province, highly dependent on visitors to its monumental temples and the tombs of King Tutankamun and other pharaohs. In 2011, 39 percent of its population lived on less than $1 a day, compared to 18 percent in 2009, according to government figures.
For the government, the fall in tourism and foreign investment since the revolution has worsened a debt crisis and forced talks with the International Monetary Fund over a $4.8 billion loan.
Morsi has promised to expand tourism, but hotel owners and tour operators say he has yet to make clear any plans.
Their biggest fear is new violence causing shocks like December's. Ibrahim, of the Eagle Travels tourism company, said that because of this month's protests, two German operators he works with cancelled tours. They weren't even heading to Cairo, but to the Red Sea, Luxor and Aswan, far from the unrest.
But some in the industry fear that, with the constitution's provisions strengthening implementation of Shariah, Islamists will ban alcohol or restrict dress on Egypt's beaches, which rival antiquities sites as draws for tourism. Officials from the Muslim Brotherhood, from which Morsi hails, are vague about any plans.
Ultraconservative Salafis, who are key allies of Morsi, have been more direct. Continued...