CAIRO — Two weeks ago, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton took an unannounced stroll through Tahrir Square, the enormous traffic circle that became the heart of the Egyptian revolution and remains a focal point for protesters in the country's freshly minted democracy.
Her verdict: "Just thrilling."
Now, Egypt's beleaguered tourism industry, faced with losses that the Egyptian Tourist Authority says have topped $1.5 billion since the protests began Jan. 25, is hoping returning foreign visitors will make their own pilgrimages to what Cairo resident Basem Salah calls "an icon of freedom."
Thanks to its central downtown location and the influential institutions that flank it — including the Egyptian Museum and the American University of Cairo — Tahrir Square has "always been a busy place," says Salah, director of operations for Great Wonders of Egypt.
In the wake of President Hosni Mubarak's departure, Salah and other tour operators are wagering that tourists who once rode past on their way to see King Tut will get out of motorcoaches to aim smartphone cameras at trees newly painted in the colors of the Egyptian flag, note where whip-wielding camel drivers attacked protesters and linger at souvenir stands hawking revolution-themed pins and T-shirts.
So far, that bet hasn't paid off.
Tourism is still down by an estimated 75 percent to 90 percent. While a recently updated State Department warning no longer advises against nonessential travel, it notes that "elements of the Egyptian government responsible for ensuring security and public safety are not fully reconstituted and are still in the process of being reorganized."
But Jim Neergaard of Casual Cairo detours did squire one young American couple on the company's fledging "Revolution Road" tour. They'd been transfixed by the Tahrir Square tableau unfolding on CNN and wanted to "see for themselves where history was made."
British tourist Monique Le Blanc, meanwhile, ignored her friends' qualms to pay homage at the city's newest attraction: "We've found it very welcoming, and the Egyptians have been amazing," she says.