Egypt and Iran explore tourism links as relations continue to thaw

 Wednesday, July 12, 2023


Egyptian and Iranian officials are expected to discuss opening up Egypt to Iranian tourists when they meet later this month as part of ongoing efforts to normalise relations between the two nations, according to Egyptian sources.

They said a delegation from Egypt’s Tourism and Antiquities Ministry led by a senior official was due to travel to Tehran to finalise details with their Iranian counterparts.

A new Egyptian tour operator would be created and made solely responsible for handling Iranian tourists, the sources told a news agency.

Iranians would only be allowed to travel to Egypt as part of organised tours, and initially only to visit Red Sea resorts in the southern region of the Sinai Peninsula.

Arrangements would later be made for Iranians to be permitted to visit religious shrines in Egypt.

Direct flights between Egypt and Iran will also resume in the next few weeks if an agreement can be reached on the details. Iranian tourists will receive entry visas on arrival in Egypt.

Beside contributing to the normalisation of ties, attracting Iranian tourists would be financially beneficial for Egypt, which is grappling with a crushing economic crisis caused in part by the fallout from the Russia-Ukraine war.

A persistent foreign currency crunch is shifting the government’s focus to increasing revenue from tourism, which already accounts for about 15 per cent of the country’s GDP.

Attracting Iranian tourists fits in with this strategy and complements ongoing efforts by Cairo to tap into the large Chinese and Indian markets for visitors.

The majority of the estimated 15 million tourists visiting Egypt this year come from Western Europe, Russia and the US.

Officials from Cairo and Tehran held several rounds of talks behind closed doors in Baghdad earlier this year to discuss normalising relations, which have been fraught with distrust and tension since the 1979 revolution in Iran.

The talks were mediated by Oman, which enjoys close relations with both countries.

In late May, Iran’s supreme leader, Grand Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, gave his seal of approval to the restoration of full diplomatic relations with Egypt.

He said he would “welcome” the restoration of ties with Egypt during a meeting with the visiting Sultan of Oman, Haitham bin Tariq.

Sultan Haitham visited Egypt earlier in May when he met President Abdel Fattah El Sisi for talks that included the normalisation of relations between Egypt and Iran, according to Egyptian officials who spoke to a news media at the time.

Egyptian officials have said that, barring unforeseen developments, Cairo and Tehran could exchange ambassadors before the end of the year. They said Mr El Sisi and Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi were also likely to meet before the year’s end.

Oman, a longtime US ally and a member of the Gulf Co-operation Council, has long served as an interlocutor in regional conflicts and disputes between Arab and Western nations.

Relations between Egypt and Iran began to sour in the aftermath of the 1979 Iranian revolution when the late Egyptian leader Anwar Sadat welcomed the deposed Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi to Egypt and a year later allowed his burial in Cairo.

There was a relative thaw after the overthrow of Hosni Mubarak in 2011 and the election a year later of Mohammed Morsi, a member of the now-banned Muslim Brotherhood.

Morsi briefly allowed Iranians to visit religious shrines in 2012. He was removed from power in 2013 and relations with Tehran cooled after Mr El Sisi took office the following year.

More recently, relations have been tense over what Cairo sees as Iran’s meddling in the internal affairs of Arab nations such as Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Yemen.

In a thinly veiled reference to Iran, Mr El Sisi has repeatedly declared Egypt’s willingness to come to the aid of its Gulf Arab allies and benefactors if they faced an external threat.

Egyptian officials believe normalised relations with Iran would secure Tehran’s goodwill in relation to Cairo’s efforts to forge closer economic and commercial ties with countries such as Iraq, Syria and Lebanon, where Tehran wields significant influence.

Egypt will also seek to persuade Iran to drop or reduce its support for Hamas and Islamic Jihad, the two main Palestinian militant groups in the Gaza Strip, which borders Egypt, according to officials.

Outbursts of hostilities between the two militant groups and Israel present a security threat to Egypt and also impede efforts at reconciliation between the militants and the Palestinian Authority in the occupied West Bank.

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