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Vendors compete furiously for business from tourists as Egypt’s chaos puts off visitors

CAIRO, Egypt - At Egypt's pyramids, the desperation of vendors to sell can be a little frightening for some of the tourists.

Vendors compete furiously for business from tourists as Egypt’s chaos puts off visitors

CAIRO, Egypt – At Egypt’s pyramids, the desperation of vendors to sell can be a little frightening for some of the tourists.

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Young men descend on any car with foreigners in it, blocking them before they reach the more than 4,500 year-old Wonder of the World. They bang on car doors and bonnets, some waving 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 an 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 would 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 per cent from last month, according to airport officials.

Tourism workers have little hope that things will get better now that the constitution has come into effect after a nationwide referendum. The power struggle between Islamist President Mohammed Mursi and the opposition threatens to erupt at any time into more unrest in the streets.

In the longer term, many in the industry worry that the ruling Islamists will start making changes such as 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, who is head of Sabena Management. She is thinking of shutting 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 were booked, and only one of her ships was 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.

This year, the industry struggled back. By the end of September, 8.1 million tourists had come, injecting US$10 billion into the economy. The number for the full year is likely to surpass last year but is still considerably down from pre-revolt 2010.