Cairo — Egypt's ancient wonders date back 5,000 years and have attracted visitors for centuries. But serious development of a tourism industry has taken place only in the past five years.
Before the 1978 Camp David agreement, Egypt had to devote enormous amounts of time, money, and manpower to its military conflict with Israel. Not only were tourist facilities poor, but regional tension scared would-be tourists away (as, in some ways, it still does).
In five years, however, Egypt has undergone an amazing change. Half a dozen huge, five-star hotels are nearing completion in Cairo. Jumbo jets and luxury cruise boats shuttle hundreds of tourists up the Nile Valley each day to see the impressive temples at Luxor, garden-like Aswan, and silent, towering Abu Simbel. In the next few years the Mediterranean coast, the Red Sea, Sinai, and Egypt's desert oases are to get new, international-name hotels.
Western tourism has increased fairly steadily in five years, although there was a drop in late 1981 and early '82 - for which uncertainties after the Sadat assassination and the onset of the global recession were blamed. Recession has also pinched tourism in Egypt's regional competitors, too - countries such as Spain, Greece, Cyprus, and Tunisia.
Arab tourism, which at first declined after the Arab League boycott of Egypt, has recovered and promises to grow significantly as Egypt-Arab rapprochement proceeds.
For Western tourists, economists in Cairo observe, Egypt is a ''prestige'' or luxury visit, usually for those willing to spend more time and money. Egypt is not simply a vacation spot. With the crowds and noise of Cairo, little actual relaxing can be done.
Instead, one visits Egypt to see the splendid Pharaonic, Greco-Roman, and Islamic marvels of this rich civilization. Usually, economists say, this is a once-in-a-lifetime visit, often by tourists on package tours of the Holy Land. (The tourist season runs from September to April, the cool-weather months in the Middle East.)
The best news for tourists and booking agents today is that it is no longer a great problem securing hotel space in Cairo for individuals or groups. Room capacity in the city has doubled since 1978, to 25,000, and should double again by 1988.
The government last year ordered hotels here to conform to the international ''star'' rating system, instead of Egypt's own unrealistic ratings. At the same time, the government removed the public-sector Egypt General Company for Tourism and Hotels and Misr Hotels from sponsorship of new building projects. Virtually all new accommodations are being erected and run by foreign companies, with Egyptian subcontractors and employees, and usually with the government financing a major share. This was a conscious government decision based on the observation that foreigners are more comfortable in, and will pay more for, hotels run by familiar chains such as Hilton, Marriott, Sheraton, Meridien.
The government, in fact, is negotiating with a foreign management firm to run other public-sector hotels and improve their standards and service.
Tourism now constitutes one of the four key moneymakers for Egypt, along with oil exports, Suez Canal tolls, and money sent by Egyptian workers abroad in the Arab world. Western economists say that in the long run - given the vicissitudes of world oil supply and prices, on which the three latter revenue-earners depend - the future pillars of Egypt's economy will have to be tourism and agriculture.
The number of nights tourists spent in Egypt's hotels last year was up over the previous year, according to preliminary reports, but revenues were down.This reflects a trend on the part of tourists to use the black market (or, as most economists call it, the ''free market'') to change money.
With accommodations improving rapidly, experts believe that what is needed most today is promotion. Although Egypt has more than 300 travel companies, only 20 to 25 are active in aiding travelers from overseas. Most devote their time to arrangements for Egyptians going to work or study abroad or making their pilgrimage to Mecca.
Egyptian tourism officials say the number of visitors is still far below what Egypt could realize. Last year, for instance, 1.5 million tourists came to the country. Of these, 100,000 were from the United States, a remarkably small number considering the close relations between the two countries. An Egyptian tourism specialist believes Egypt could host 5 million visitors by 1990.
In the short term, the promotion of international tourism will undoubtedly be left to hotels themselves. But Egypt plans to set up its own promotion companies. Both promotion and higher private-sector involvement (both Egyptian and foreign) are key ingredients of the tourist component of the new five-year economic plan being carried out by Tourism Minister Tewfik Abdu Ismail.
The government has also begun to encourage charter flights to Egypt and seems poised to reduce fares on the state air carrier, Egyptair, to stimulate tourism further.
The biggest problem facing Egyptian tourism, says former Tourism Minister Jamal al-Nazir, is Egypt's troubled region. Anytime there is a hint of Middle East instability, even if the problem is thousands of miles away, tourists get cold feet. Several months after the Iran-Iraq war began in 1980, for instance, the US State Department advised against vacation travel to the entire Middle East, calling it an insecure area - this even though Egypt was committed to neutrality and is almost 1,000 miles away from the front.
Mr. Nazir recalls talking with his Israeli counterpart one day when the discussion turned to this problem. Both countries were affected. Nazir says the Egyptian and the Israeli agreed that it would help if travelers simply remembered that ''Egypt is Egypt, Israel is Israel, and the Middle East is a very big place.''