Somabay’s Ibrahim El Messiri on how a tourism push could draw immediate FX
We recently had breakfast with 20 top CEOs to talk about why exports and FDI are key to our economy going forward. After reading our five-step recipe for turning Egypt into a global export hub and FDI magnet, participating CEOs agreed to answer two questions on the record for our latest CEO Poll.
We have already heard from:
- GSK’s Mohamed El Dababy, who says the starting point is tourism;
- McKinsey’s Jalil Bensouda, who points to business process outsourcing and customer relationship management.
Today, we hear from Ibrahim El Missiri (LinkedIn), CEO of Somabay, the high-profile Red Sea coast destination whose hotels, short-term rentals, and homes attract visitors and investors from all over the world. Ibrahim has previously been a guest on our podcast (The Enterprise Show) and has appeared in our My Morning Routine column. Excerpts from our discussion:
ENTERPRISE- Which industry would you put on a focused short list — and why?
IM- I would love for tourism and aviation to be the focus for Egypt, as it was in the past. They’re the two industries that can bring foreign currency into the country tomorrow — it’s like flicking a light switch. You don't need to build factories or develop farms. You’ve got a significant inventory of hotel rooms that need to be filled. And the demand is there — it’s just a matter of connecting the demand and the supply. We don't have feasibility study requirements, because the hotels have been built and the customers are there.
Tourism can bring in USD 30-40 bn a year — it’s a quick, immediate fix. Look at what happened with COP27: There was appetite. Sharm had capacity. So just by increasing the number of flights, you managed to get c. 75k people to the destination. The problem is that we had to slow the pipeline to other destinations, because we just don’t have enough flights.
You can’t really come to Egypt by car, train or ship — Egypt's problem is the lift. It’s easier to get to the Maldives or Seychelles in the Indian Ocean than it is to come to Egypt. It's not even an infrastructure problem: The airports are there and they have the capacity. You just don't have the “flying buses” to carry people. Solve this problem, and Egypt will be flush with FX, in my view.
Now imagine if we focus on increasing the spend per guest. The USD you get per tourist or per landing is not low because tourists don't want to spend. They don’t spend because we need to improve our offering. Our airports need improvement. Our airport shopping experience, our transport experience, all of it — it pales in comparison to Heathrow or Dubai. Anywhere else, tourists spend USD 100-200 before they even get to the hotel. Not here — even though we have the products, from traditional clothing to replica artifacts.
E: Why are exports and FDI the way forward?
IM- For the past 100 years or more, we have been getting FX from the same three sources: tourism, the Suez Canal, and remittances. In other words, Egyptians living in Egypt don’t really make a contribution when it comes to bringing in FX. We consume everything we produce. So we need to start producing to export. We need to empower businesses to export, and that demands legislative and regulatory stability.
Laws change too frequently, which is a problem for investors — it makes it difficult to put a business plan together with certainty about how much it's going to cost.