Egypt’s Tourism is Under Threat

Egypt is one of the most beautiful countries in the world. I don’t say that because I’m Egyptian. I say that with the eye of a person who has traveled the world far and wide and has seen what the world – and Egypt – has to offer.

Northern Sinai

Put Cairo aside for a bit. The minute you step outside of Cairo, our country’s beautiful landscape will put you into a trance. If you travel up north, you’ll ride through our lusciously green Delta region, with the countless Nile tributaries feeding farmland as far as the eye can see. Travel further north, and you’ll reach the Mediterranean Sea and its quaint towns scattered along it. Alexandria is a jewel. It comes with centuries-worth of history and shines with its typical Mediterranean culture.

Travel south from Cairo along the Nile Valley and you’ll pass through rural southern towns known for their hospitality, strong accents, and great food. The further south you go, the bluer and the clearer the Nile waters get. Travel even further south and you will be stunned by 4000 years-worth of history and some of the most important antiquities mankind has to provide.

Travel west and you will venture into the Western Desert, with its never-ending sand dunes and scattered oases. And travel east and you will travel through the Eastern Desert to reach the Red Sea, with some of the best dive sites in the whole world.

And then there’s Cairo. Egyptians call it Masr – or simply Egypt – because it is everything that Egypt represents from history, to culture, to a gathering place of people and cultures, to chaos, to beauty and grandeur, to ugliness and pettiness.

Al-Azhar University in Old Cairo

Egyptians say that Egypt is the Mother of the World – umm addunya – and we truly believe it is. Egyptians also say that if you drink from the Nile River once, you will return to it. And definitely for most Egyptians, that’s true. Our attachment to our country is very strong no matter how strongly we criticize it. And most Egyptians who leave the country do eventually return, if even to be buried in its belly.

As a country, we have so much to offer to tourists. As a people, we’ve failed tourists miserably.

Almost half of my family and friends are not Egyptian, so I have considerable experience showing them around the country. And with this experience has come a close knowledge of our many faults.

I haven’t met a single person who has visited Egypt that hasn’t complained about the hagglers. If I were to mention one single thing that absolutely must be solved in order for tourism to improve in this country it would be that.

Allow me to give you the simple example of a visit to the Pyramids.

The blue Nile waters of Aswan

As your car approaches the Pyramids, you will be met by young men who are standing in the middle of traffic checking out cars for suspected tourists. Once they catch sight of you, they will bang on your car door and tell you that you cannot access the Pyramids any longer through the main entrance and that they will ride with you to show you how to get there. Assuming you are smart enough not to believe them – DON’T – you will continue driving towards the main entrance of the Pyramids all the while dodging these determined young men. What these men want is to take your money. Short story. They want you to ride their horses or camels for exorbitant prices. They want to guide you through the Pyramids grounds for what they will say is a bargain price but for what in reality is ridiculously expensive. And they will STICK to you like glue. You will not be able to get rid of them for the life of you. As a tourist, this will be scary. You will not know how to shake them off. You will feel intimidated.

When I take my non-Egyptian friends to the Pyramids, I drive through these men on Pyramids road. If they so much as try to TOUCH my car, I make a threatening move to run them over. When we’re inside the Pyramids grounds, I’m constantly shooing these people away with a loud Egyptian woman voice and a dangerous stare I have perfected over the years. Once at the Pyramids I saw an Egyptian teenager incessantly tapping the shoulder of a Western woman trying to sell her the goods he had with him. She looked terrified. She had her gaze down and was ignoring him hoping he wouldn’t get violent and that he’d leave her alone. I grabbed his arm, gave him the dangerous Nadia stare, and told him to leave the woman alone. He did.

Thing is, I can’t go live in the Pyramids to protect our visitors.

The other thing is, ALL OF THIS happens under the protective eyes of Egypt’s tourism police. On the road up to the entrance of the Pyramids are a police station, police cars, and policemen. Lots of them. Not one of them stops the hagglers. Not one of them comes to the protection of the tourists.

This reminds me of a story. I was in Morocco sometime around 2007 for a conference. A group of my American friends had gone into the old city to see the sights. They

The red mountains of Southern Sinai

went alone without having one of us Arabs with them. One of the women in the group was sexually harassed by a male Moroccan haggler. He cornered her in the women’s bathroom and tried to kiss her. When I heard this story, my natural reaction was to put together a posse of Egyptians to go get the guy and beat him up. After searching for the dude for a few hours, a Moroccan friend of ours heard about what we were doing and couldn’t believe it. “Why haven’t you gone to the tourism police?” he asked us incredulously? The concept of tourism police doing ANYTHING had we gone to them didn’t even occur to me because of my experiences in Egypt. But sure enough, we went to the Moroccan tourism police and by the next morning they caught the idiot, brought us in to identify him, and had him thrown in jail.

Back to Egypt. Try walking down Cairo’s Grand Bazaar, Khan El-Khaleeli, without having at least 20 different men touching you, standing in your way, and trying to get you into their shops.  And that’s if you’re Egyptian. Again, as Egyptians, we give them the ugly Egyptian stare and hold out our hand in the well-known gesture that means “you’d better stay away from me, pal, or you’ll be in trouble”. We’re not afraid of them because we know how to react if they go too far. We’ll get into a fist fight with them, we’ll yell and gather people around us, and we’ll make a horrible commotion. But tourists will not and cannot react this way. They have no means to protect themselves and all they can really do is endure it until they are safely out of range, which usually happens only when they are on the flight back home.

And the prices that non-Egyptians are asked to pay for things. My husband, who is not Egyptian, was once asked to pay 20 Egyptian Pounds for a bottle of water that normally costs three pounds. I had to go to the idiot shop keeper and give him a piece of my mind so that we could buy the water for the normal “Egyptian price”. I’ve never traveled ANYWHERE in the world, except maybe some sub-Saharan African countries, where there was such a thing as a local price and a tourists’ price. It’s ridiculous.

I’ll end this with a note about the anti-foreigner rhetoric that has been going on in our local Egyptian media and from within our government since the start of the revolution.

Diving in the Straits of Tiran in the Red Sea

This rhetoric has resulted in a real mistrust of foreigners among normal Egyptians who do not know better than to believe the crap that they are fed. And it’s affecting the way that they treat tourists. It’s getting worse. And it’s not only affecting tourists. It’s also affecting foreign residents. Just the other day a Dutch person working in a Dutch organization here in Cairo was told that his visa would not be extended for the simple reason that the idiot Egyptian employee at the visa section in Tahrir felt that we should be employing Egyptians in his stead.

Now, you tell me. If foreigners coming to Egypt are experiencing all this – and more – and are going back to their countries and telling people about their miserable experiences, do you think people will want to come and visit?

Tourism feeds a major portion of Egypt’s economy. We depend on it. And we’re frightening the tourists away.

I direct this plea to the Ministry of Tourism and to the Ministry of Interior (I will be polite this time and not ask them both to fuck themselves or each other). Change is REQUIRED. NOW. GET OFF YOUR BUTTS AND DO THE JOBS YOU ARE PAID TO DO!

 

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9 comments

  1. Nadia, Tourism in Egypt is its biggest opportunity lost. My husband says that the dusty little shops and the street hagglers at the pyramids haven’t changed since he was a child. Go into any of the shops – their wares are frequently dusty, dirty, and disorganized. There is so much lost revenue there that it is just screaming for attention. Where are the centralized standards from the ministry of tourism? The Cairo Museum is overflowing with artifacts, so many, in fact, that a lot of them are stacked in the basement of the Museum where no one can see them. The gift shop in the Museum is pathetic. The tourists come to spend money, and there’s no place for them to spend it! Further, the museum isn’t air conditioned! Seriously hard to believe, but true. Why isn’t there a welcome center out at the Pyramids, with interactive displays and some of those artifacts stuffed in the basement of the Cairo Museum? Why aren’t there nice, quality t-shirts, beautiful coffee table pictorial books, quality souvenirs? All of this would produce a huge amount of revenue. The place where the camels congregate up on the hill behind the Pyramids is the perfect place for such a welcome/information center. Imagine it made of all glass, where one could view the pyramids in an air conditioned setting, for those that can’t tolerate the heat and walk around them. Why aren’t these opportunities being exploited? And the hagglers, yes, I’ve been a victim of them countless times (every visit to Egypt we spend 1-2 nights at the Mena House and visit the Pyramids. It’s a family ritual we love). Individual peddlers should be given permits and be required to meet certain standards. If they violate them, their permit should be revoked. Go to all the major sites in Cairo and beyond, and it’s the same story. The Muhammad Ali Citadel is a fabulous treasure of history. Again, souvenirs look like they’ve been hauled around in someone’s blanket – some chipped and damaged. Postcards hang on stands covered in a layer of dust. Inside the Museum on the grounds of the Citadel are historical military artifact exhibits with descriptions translated into English with grammatical and spelling mistakes – some of them amusing, if one puts aside the realities of unprofessionalism about it all. I can sum it up like this – Egypt has a feast to share, full of the most delicious items you’ll ever taste. People come running to partake, only to find it served on the lids of trash cans in a back parking lot.

  2. Hello Nadia,

    I am writing this to you as a foreigner who grew up in Egypt, and after living for 20 years in the US and Europe, returned to Cairo about 10 years ago.

    First, I am not sure why you call these unscrupulous street thugs at the tourist locations “hagglers”. To haggle simply means to negotiate a price; to dicker. In Arabic we say “yefasel”. I have been to markets in Morocco and Israel where not haggling is considered rude. I think “shyster” is a better word for these people.

    When my American girlfriend came to visit me 3 years ago, the first place she wanted to go was the Pyramids. When we got there I successfully avoided all the self-proclaimed “guides” and decided to take her around myself. After 5 minutes she started to ask me a lot of questions that I could not answer. I turned around and signaled to one of the “guides” who had been keeping a wary distance from us.

    He turned out to be a walking encyclopedia, and his English was not bad. He told us that he would take us on a special tour of the Pyramid grounds. He signaled an associate who brought a horse-drawn carriage that we could ride around in. During the next 90 minutes he took us around and imparted a large amount of historical information that was new to both of us.

    He structured the tour so it would end by the Sphinx, and told us we were “invited” for tea at one of the larger shops selling perfume essential oils. I told my girlfriend that this was obviously prearranged to drum up business for the shop, but she was very eager to go anyway.

    He took us to the perfume shop where my girlfriend bought a few glass bottles of oils for herself and friends. We were served tea and our host did not seem to have any other care in the world except for us.

    How much did all this cost? The guide asked me for US$ 60, the carriage was US$ 40, and another US$ 20 for the kids that come up to try to “help” you get on and off the carriage. I do not remember how much the tickets for the Pyramids were, but mine was less than a quarter of hers. And we probably spent another US$ 100 on perfume.

    Now, anyone reading this would chuckle and say that we were scammed. That the “guides” charge an exorbitant price, and have deals with the local shops to bring them business in exchange for a fee.

    All this may be true, but my girlfriend told me that she had a great time, and that she loved every minute of it.

    I guess if we had access to official tour guides it might have been cheaper. Still, our experience was very positive.

    As a side note, Egypt is not the only place where there is a higher price for foreigners. When I went to university in the US, I paid double the tuition fees that residents paid. When I lived in Amsterdam, I had to pay to enter museums that residents could enter for free on certain days.

    What I am very concerned with, and was hoping your post would address, is the issue of safety. For years I used to tell people that Egypt is so safe, that a woman could walk anywhere by herself at 3am and not have to worry about her safety. Sadly that is no longer the case. Egypt is no longer regarded as a safe place, and many of my friends who used to visit from the US and Europe are being told to stay away.

    I think this is what is killing the tourist industry in Egypt. I know of two small tour operators that have gone out of business in the last year. They tell me that there are many more. Worst of all, they say that it will get much worse before it gets better.

    A tourist on vacation exchanging each dollar for 6 Egyptian pounds usually finds it cheaper to vacation in Egypt that in a resort in her own country. Spending a little extra is part of going on vacation, and is generally acceptable. Feeling that one’s safety is threatened is not.

    I think that is the critical issue that should be addressed immediately.

    I apologize for the long post. I do love your blog.

    All the best.

  3. I worked as a tour leader here for 2 years and relate 100% to what you are saying.

    One of the problems is that you have whole rows of stalls (often positioned so people leaving the temple or whatever are funnelled past them) where everyone is selling exactly the same made-in-China pharaonic kitsch, so there’s this huge competition to literally snag a mark and squeeze as much money as possible out of him/her/them.

    A worrying thing at the moment is how even people who have worked closely with tourists for years buy in to the state-propagated anti-foreigner sentiment. A close friend of mine is a felucca captain from near Edfu. He’s smart and his eyes are open and he’s spent his whole life working with foreigners – many of his friends here are expats – yet he still believes the foreigners-ruining-the-revolution narrative.

  4. What a shame – desperate times though and desperate people.
    I thoroughly enjoyed visiting Egypt many years ago. Sure people approached me – us – but they did so in a friendly way. Sure they wanted to chat as a ruse to inveigling us into a shop to buy stuff, but they were merely opening themselves up to interrogation from me about every aspect of Egyptian life – so much so that they’d end up making their excuses and leaving.
    What a shame if the friendly approaches have been replaced by intimidation.

  5. Thanks for the post – it’s great to get the perspective of someone living in Cairo now. I’m thinking about visiting Egypt in May but it’s really hard to figure out whether or not that’s a good idea or not. I’ll be coming with my boyfriend, who will be there on business and speaks fluent Arabic. Any advice?

    1. You should absolutely come. It’s always a better idea to be in the company of a man if just to avoid harrasment. If you or he has an Egyptian friend, get them to show you around when possible. You’ll get better prices and won’t be pursued as much by people wanting your money. But do come. You won’t regret it.

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