CAIRO (AP) — Thousands of passengers were stranded at Cairo’s airport on Saturday as flights were canceled or delayed, leaving them unable to leave because of a government-imposed curfew. Several Arab nations, meanwhile, moved to evacuate their citizens.
As Egypt’s unrest neared its sixth day, the cancelations of flights and the arrival of several largely empty aircraft appeared to herald an ominous erosion of key tourism revenue for the country, hitting hard at its pocketbook even as protesters centered many of their grievances on the grinding poverty they endure daily.
Saudi Arabia, Lebanon, the United Arab Emirates and Jordan organized an additional 10 flights to evacuate their citizens, officials at Cairo International Airport said. Among those who left were families of diplomats.
Egypt’s national carrier, meanwhile, was forced to cancel 15 scheduled flights because it was unable to secure the necessary crew and service personnel, the officials said, speaking on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to brief the media.
For roughly 3,000 travelers, Egyptians and foreigners alike, the news was another blow in a day where little had gone right.
About 2,000 had flocked to the airport earlier in the day, many without reservations, hoping to secure a seat out of the country. With airlines canceling or rescheduling flights because of a curfew that was expanded from between 4 p.m. and 8 a.m., the options were limited, and their numbers swelled as flights arrived later in the evening.
Many of those passengers remained stranded at the airport, unable to leave because of the curfew as well as fears of the widespread looting reported across the capital.
Others, who had yet to venture to the airport, appeared to be counting the days and holding out hope for any opportunity to leave.
"We’re going to contact the U.S. consulate, because we want them to know we’re here," said Regina Fraser, co-host of the "Grannies on Safari" show on PBS, an American public access television channel. "We’re going to try and figure out how the heck we’re going to get back because we’re very concerned there may not be any flights."
"We do want people to know, ’Hey we’re Americans, we need to get home’," she said, speaking from the southern Egyptian city of Luxor. "Who wants to be around gunfire and also tear gases? It’s pretty scary."
The immediate prospects seemed slim.
British Midlands International said its flight from London Heathrow to Cairo turned around because the change in the curfew would have made it impossible to land in time for passengers to make it out of the airport.
The plane was filled with British diplomats, human rights workers, international journalists, and some Egyptians desperate to get home — including at least one trying to make it back in time for his wedding, according to an Associated Press reporter on board the flight.
Several airlines, including Germany’s Lufthansa and Air Berlin, U.S. carrier Delta Air Lines and Poland’s LOT canceled flights and some were weighing how long to extend those cancelations. Delta said its service was "indefinitely suspended as a result of civil unrest" in Egypt.
Others, such as Italy’s Alitalia, Netherlands-based KLM and British Airways were adjusting their schedules to accommodate the curfew hours. BA also said it would send a charter plane to Egypt to move passengers wanting to leave.
The flight disruptions threatened to undercut the tourism sector, which according to some analysts accounts for as much as 11 percent of the country’s gross domestic product. Tourism brought in more than $9 billion for Egypt in the first nine months of 2010 and $10.8 billion the year before.
Egypt’s military closed off access to the pyramids in Giza — with tanks and armored personnel carriers sealing off the site on the Giza Plateau. The area is normally packed with tourists and is a main draw for those who come to Cairo.
So far, the protests appear to have mainly affected travel plans to Cairo, while the Red Sea resorts favored by the Europeans and Russians, who make up the majority of foreign tourists to Egypt were unaffected.
The United States, France and Germany issued warnings to their respective citizens, urging them to cancel nonessential travel to Cairo and to remain indoors and away from flashpoint areas if they were already in the country.
The Polish Foreign Ministry said it had learned that some Polish tourists had rented vehicles to travel to cities where demonstrations were taking place. "We consider this very irresponsible and urge them not to do that," ministry spokesman Marcin Bosacki said.
Europeans and Russians account for a major chunk of the tourists to Egypt, opting for Red Sea resort trips while many Americans go for more expansive trips that include the Pharaonic sites in Upper Egypt, as well as Cairo.
Two of the biggest tourism agencies in Germany, TUI and Thomas Cook, gave their customers the option of either canceling trips to Egypt or choosing a different destination, with no penalties.
Thomas Cook said that there had not been any requests for cancelations.
TUI also said nobody had asked to return early to Germany and there had been only sporadic cancelations.
Rene-Marc Chikli, president of the CETO association of French tour operators, said the group was suspending all departures this weekend for Egypt. Many travelers who are already in Egypt are being routed away from Cairo to other destinations, such as Luxor, Aswan or the Red Sea, he told France Info radio.
All Serb tours to Egypt, one of their main tourist destinations, were canceled, and some 120 Serbs will be evacuated from Hurghada and Sharm el-Sheikh on Monday.
"The difference is that the flight coming to Egypt on Monday will be empty," Serbian Ambassador to Egypt Dejan Vasiljevic was quoted as saying by state Tanjug news agency.
For those in Cairo, the push appeared to be on getting home as soon as possible.
Royal Jordanian spokesman Basel Kilani said the Jordanian carrier is nearly doubling the number of seats on its four daily flights out of Cairo to Amman on Sunday by switching from the 100-seat short-haul Embraer to the 170-seat Airbus A-321.
"We may have additional flights out of Cairo as of tomorrow, but there’s no decision made yet," said Kilani. "The need is rising, especially by Jordanian businessmen and students leaving Egypt."