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Egypt's economy hurting as tourists stay away

Saad Ahmed has a lot of time on his hands these days.

Usually at this time of year, hordes of tourists swarm the Egyptian merchant's souvenir shop and many others like it at the foot of Egypt's mightiest pyramid, snapping up postcards, ornamental papyrus and enough statuettes of King Tut to create a kitschy necropolis back home.

But Egypt's revolution has scared away millions of foreign tourists, the lifeblood of the nation's economy, and now this ancient kingdom of tombs resembles a ghost town.

"I'm losing a lot of money," said Ahmed, 63, a retiree who sold property near his home in the province of Qena five years ago to buy one of the souvenir shops near the Great Pyramid of Cheops on Cairo's outskirts.

A lot of people have been losing money after the uprising that forced President Hosni Mubarak from office more than two months ago.

Although the revolution has lifted the hopes of many Egyptians eager for a more prosperous, democratic future, the turmoil has walloped the nation's economy, in no small part because of the drop in tourism. Merchants who cater to tourists say the post-revolutionary drop in business has been much more severe than the slowdown after gunmen killed a group of tourists in Luxor in 1997.

Between Jan. 25 and Feb. 1, at least 1 million tourists cut their visits short or chose not to come at all, Egypt's new minister of tourism, Mounir Fakry Abdel Noor, said in an interview.

In February, tourism was off 80 percent compared with last year, and it fell 60 percent in March, Noor said. That is a crippling blow for a sector that accounts for one of every seven Egyptian jobs and makes up about 11 percent of the nation's economy. "Tourism is the number one foreign-currency earner in Egypt," Noor said. "It's obviously very important."

The revolution has also slowed other sectors. Jobs have been lost, foreign investment has dried up and inflation has increased. The stock exchange opened only late last month after a two-month shutdown.

The government reported last week that food prices have skyrocketed 48 percent in a nation that is already the world's largest importer of wheat. Lines form in neighborhoods when trucks arrive with scarce canisters of cooking fuel.

All of this has added stress to an economy where 22 percent of people live below the poverty line, according to World Bank figures.

Finance Minister Samir Radwan said this month that Egypt's economic growth had slowed to an estimated 2.5 percent this year, compared with 5.3 percent in 2010.

Radwan also suggested that Egypt might need to lean on the gulf oil states for aid -- an idea tartly swatted aside by Field Marshal Mohammed Hussein Tantawi, the leader of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, which has run the country since Mubarak stepped down. Tantawi told Egyptian reporters that Egypt was not a "beggar."

The revolution's impact on the economy has made some Egyptians impatient about the continuing calls for change during regular protests in Tahrir Square.

Mohamed Al-Masry, a businessman and former president of the Federation of Egyptian Chambers of Commerce, said most Egyptians in the business community have been supportive of the revolution. But some also long for the return of stability.

"This is the cost of freedom, so OK, we are ready to expect this," he said. "But only for a certain time."

Although calm has partially returned, some Egyptians remain focused on the poor economy, particularly in the cluster of shops near the Giza pyramids that local Egyptians call "tourist town."

On a recent day, the arrival of almost every new visitor drew a pesky mob of wheeler-dealers, especially because there were so few customers on the dirt streets near establishments such as the Kingh Tut Bazaar, the Cleopatra Papyrus Gallery and the Sphinx Guest House.

"There's nothing to be scared of," said Kathleen Batten, a university professor from England visiting the pyramids with her husband, Derek. She said tourists have delighted in an unintended benefit since the revolution: no crowds.

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