Wednesday, February 09, 2005

Tourism in Egypt

I'll start off by saying that I'm not a believer of tourism in Egypt. Not that I don't welcome tourists in Egypt, or wouldn't encourage them to spend time here. But I'm just against relying on tourism as one of three main sources of income for Egypt (all being services). Besides the fact that this is an industry that does not allow people to be productive, develop, progress and hence improve the general standard of living. Its one of the main industries in Egypt because its a gold mine that generates revenue without doing any effort from our side. Investors build hotels and resorts, locals tour the toursits around the historical sites, and let them have their fun on the beaches. We're simply making money out of being good hosts, showing off our history and beaches.

Well, we certainly brag about being such great hosts too much. How Egyptians are so kind, and nice, warm and welcoming! At some point in time, I'm sure we were, but do we really still believe that now. I've had an interesting experience regarding that a few months back when a couple of Canadian friends were visiting Egypt. Overall they had a great time, enjoyed the adventure, the history, the sights, the food, and ofcourse, the company;) An adventure it was for them ofcourse, on many levels. Just crossing the street is not a trivial activity here for the unacquainted. But what is it with Egyptians when they see people with white skin and blonde hair?! They attempt to squeeze every penny out of them in any possible way, from over-pricing to trying to fool them to begging to harrassing to being smart-asses, just short of plain theft.

I'll understand the excuse that people are really having it tough around here, and making a living is a hell of a struggle, but I can't accept that excuse.

I couldn't imagine the amounts of harrassement and foul games that we've experienced during their visit, especially in touristic sights. I've been cursed myself by a street seller when I was bargaining with him for a low-quality fake sun glasses that he wanted to sell for 50 pounds. "Why the hell are you bargaining for them, they can afford it"! They came back from Luxor & Aswan telling stories of the great monuments there ofcourse, as well as of stories of people doing their best to rip them off. People trying to sell them a Galabeyya for 500 pounds, eventually going down to 50. A guy who kept throwing himself infront of their camera shot, asking for 'baksheesh'. A guy telling them an item was for 5 pounds only, which sounded really cheap, they go in, try it on, and then when they're about to buy it he says, its for 5 Nubian Pounds, and that amounts to 500 Egyptian Pounds.. what!! I was ashamed listening to those stories, and just couldn't defend those actions, not with the typical excuse of how tough life is, and you guys are a gold mine to them.

We are apparently so isolated into ourselves that when we see a tourist, looking different, carrying a different currency, we treat them like they're aliens coming from outer space. Have a little dignity and decency for God's sake.

I thus find the statement that the Egyptian people are the main asset of tourism in Egypt utter nonesense.

And on the subject of tourism, what is it with those foreign women moving to somewhere like Hurghada, marrying (or not) local men, and settling there. I haven't been able to figure that out yet, and none of the explanations I've heard make sense to me.


Anonymous said...

Great post. I've said for a long time that I really do think Egyptians are some of the kindest most gracious folks around, EXCEPT for anyone in the tourism business. Nice to see someone, particularly an Egyptian, agreeing with me on that point. In a lot of ways tourism is a "rent" in the same way that oil or gold is -- you do a nice job of pointing out how just like those commodities, tourism has almost become an extractive industry. That is, an industry where there is very little value added and instead people just focus on squeezing it for all it's worth and they ended up becoming worse themselves for it.

That said, don't sell it short for it's potential (largely unrealized right now) to be more useful. If it becomes more formalized, if people have to develop more skills, if Egyptian firms do more of the investment and actual work or at least are more involved in maintaining higher standards (at the 3 star-hotel level and not just the 5-star for example), and most important of all if other more productive industries are developed and become the backbone of the economy, then I think tourism can be a useful and positive piece of the broader economic pie. Service industries in themselves are not bad -- heck, even the American economy is becoming an almost exclusively service economy and still managing quite well.

One positive if small Egyptian example that comes to mind is when my wife and I were doing the tourist circuit in Luxor back in the 90s for a weekend. My wife speaks Chinese and all of a sudden was thrilled to find a group of Taiwanese tourists with a Chinese-speaking Egyptian tour guide. The guy had lived and studied in Beijing for a while and spoke pretty decent Mandarin. He had bettered himself, he was building a successful entrepreneurial business as one of what he said was only 2 Chinese-speaking Egyptian tour guides in the country he knew of at the time, and besides for just being nice he wasn't ripping anybody off. He was bettering himself, adding some real value to the service sector of the economy, and through transparent pricing (i.e., through standard tour packages and not "pssst, hey buddy, come hear, see Luxor, real cheap" soliciting) was helping a small segment of the market function as it should. On that last point, metered taxis wouldn't be a bad starting point to help things out in Cairo!

Thanks again, great post.

Anonymous said...

I would have agreed with your comments a while ago but putting up with the street hassles of Egypt and Cairo seems an unfair trade-off with the process Egyptians undertake to go to the US.

Assuming they are granted a visa by the "no-police" at the US embassy, where Wasta works better than in the Mugamma, then they are treated to discriminatory racist-boardline questioning about their motives by a $18000/year bureaucrat as they enter the US where they are finger-printed and photographed each time they enter because of the Orwellian named US-VISIT program.

Well whatever makes Americans, like my mid-western Aunt, feel "safer" I suppose.

Besides with all the displacement of the Egyptians in places like Luxor to make way for white-tourism there, one day travelers may get to come here and never see a local.

haal said...

How do you get to add all these links to your blog, including mine, I see.

praktike said...

You might find this interesting, Mohamed. I'm not sure I would like Dubai, but they sure know how to make money, from the sound of this article. (The author, Lee Smith, has some biases that will probably annoy you, as they do me)

Excerpt below:
To the millions of tourists who come through Dubai's titanium-steel airport terminal, the city seems a chrome and glass fantasy, part Disney, part Scheherezade - a vision built on sand. Dubai's unofficial symbol, the Burj Al Arab hotel, a 47-story building in the shape of a sail with a helipad on the roof, claims to have earned no fewer than seven stars. The locals will proudly tell you that the tanker port, Jebel Ali, is so big that it's one of only three man-made objects (including the Great Wall of China) visible from space. If that's not impressive enough, they'll point out the third: Palm Island, a residential and resort complex, also in Dubai.

Compared to old regional capitals like Cairo, Beirut, and Damascus, Dubai is trendy, excessive, even synthetic. But to its residents, the rest of the Arab world isn't trying hard enough. "In 2002, Egyptians got 5.3 million tourists and we got 4.7 million," says Marwan al-Marri, a junior executive at Dubai's Department of Tourism and Commerce Marketing. "They have the pyramids, and they do nothing with them. Can you imagine what we'd do with the pyramids?"

You won't have to imagine much longer. Dubai Land, an amusement park billed as "the leisure and entertainment capital of the Middle East," is due to open in 2006 - complete with replica pyramids.

Behind the excess, there's an equally audacious initiative to transform Dubai from yet one more oil-dependent state into a world capital of media and commerce. Using its short-lived oil wealth, the emirate has built "free zones," areas earmarked for economic liberalization, technological innovation, and political transparency. Among these, three sprawling industrial parks stand out. The first, Internet City, is a bid to make Dubai the Arab world's IT hub. Next is the International Financial Center, a stock market headquarters meant to match Hong Kong's, London's, and New York's, and to trump the region's 13 other exchanges. And there is Media City, home to Al Arabiya, which aspires to replace Cairo as the Middle East's media capital while broadcasting the emirate's vision of openness across the area.

Anonymous said...

Ugh, Dubai, from that description, sounds like a place I would avoid completely. But then, I live in California and I have vowed not to visit Disneyland, even if my children beg me.

Anyway, back to tourism. I'm an Arab American tourist, so I want to see the sights that belong to my history and culture. I know enough to dress modestly (lived in Egypt in 1983). I can't get enough of Beirut, want to return to Egypt, haven't made it to Damascus but intend to, would love to see Petra, and want to go to Morocco as well.

Now, going to Egypt - I have lived there and I know the challenges. My white American husband would find the whole scene difficult. I recommend tours to my parents and their friends, and if and when I go, I'll be using my Cairo contacts to set up a driver for us the whole time. NOrmally I avoid guided tours, but Egypt is an exception because of what you describe.

My memory of living in Egypt with my first husband, a 100% Egyptian raised partly abroad, is that anybody upper class and ever so slightly westernized got harassed on the street. It was 22 years ago and people remarked on how the mood on the street was changing, becoming combative. I toned down my clothing so that I looked more modest (quit wearing jeans completely) and always had shawls and accessories on hand so I could cover my hair if necessary. But I was young, tall, light skinned and raised an American. People tell me American women just walk differently. My Egyptian boyfriend (later husband) got almost as much guff as I did just by being with me.

Anyway, as a tourist I hate being in places that are geared toward tourists - I much prefer a one star hotel that's used by local people than a three star that's a replica of some American place. I don't like artificial tourist restaurants and shopping areas. But in Egypt it's quite dicey to wander about on your own as a Westerner- you're always being stopped, questioned, hustled.

I'm hoping that when we do get back to Egypt, our two young sons will help us negotiate some of this. People are kinder to families. I will be dressing like the middle aged wife that I am now - I may very well put on outfits that would be appropriate for modest but not veiled Muslim professional women - long tunics over pants as they wear in Beirut, with a scarf always nearby to cover the head if needed, or nice long dresses that cover the arms and knees. At my age I prefer to blend in than to be fashionable.

I agree with you about tourism as a basis for an economy - it's pretty lame. The Lebanese are obsessed with it and I really wonder how much good it does them. IT's like cocaine or gambling - makes you feel good for a while, but what's the long term effect (note, I never tried either coke or gambling)

Leila from Dove's Eye View

Mohamed said...

Anonymous 1:
Absolutely, there are alot of exceptional Egyptians. That Chinese-speaking guy is certainly interesting, but everyone is heading to China these days, we're just abit too late as usual. Actually, my friends' tour guide in their Nile cruise was also exceptional they say (he was the nephew of the Egypt Air pilot that had his airplane plunged). He had genuine love and interest in Egyptology, spoke excellent English, and was not after their money.

Anonymous 2:
Its too bad what Egyptians have to go through to be able to go to the States ofcourse. There is a difference however, America didn't invite Egyptians over, and they're almost blunt about not wanting us there. Egyptians on the other hand are convinced that their lives are hanging on the thread of tourism, and everyone is welcome to do whatever here, as long as they pay.

Thanks for the article. I've never thought of moving to Dubai, but I've certainly been curious enough lately to want to visit it. I think the article is pretty good, except for the last part where he compares it to Baghdad, and relates it to the Islamic civilization. Although I would disagree with such model of development (which the author gloats about), they are certainly much more successful over at Dubai than we are here in Cairo.

I think you're being too cautious there. What I've described is pretty bad, I concur, but its not as bad as you think about it. You're comparing to 20 years back, and multiplying by an x factor of worseness. If you're just visiting for a short while, you'll only be annoyed by what I've described in the post and the incredible disorganization, but you will certainly enjoy everything else (we (residents) have to deal with all the rest of the problems here). And if you come with an adventurous spirit, you'll even enjoy those too. Those organized tours are kind of interesting, they basically visit Egypt from behind a glass wall. You see those fancy buses going through the streets of Cairo, and the tourists staring from behind the bus windows. Those are real tourists I think, who just tour in isolation, almost never meeting a local. But on the other hand, there are quite a number of tourists, who really discover the culture by interacting with lots of locals, walking in the streets (something that some Egyptians try to avoid), eating in local places, and going to cultural activities. And that is certainly an experience Westerners can't find back home. Unfortunately, those kind of tourists are not very welcomed by the government officials (not that they harass them in any way) becasue they come on the cheap, and don't bring in as much money as the grand organized tours. We have a saying here that "looking at Egypt from up above, is different than looking at it from down below", and I think that applies in this case.

Regarding clothing, I actually think that the more you look like a foreigner the less you are stared at because of what you're wearing (and that's really mostly what you get, stares, and maybe a few pick up lines).

Anonymous said...

Um, no. I'm an Egyptian resident, US citizen, and I can personally attest to the fact that "that's really mostly what you get, stares, and maybe a few pick up lines" is absolutely not representative of my experience here or that of most of my friends. Nearly every western woman I know who lives in Cairo (most are between 30 and 40, but some are older) has been grabbed in some way that goes far beyond a "pinch", and two have been so seriously assaulted that they have reported it to the authorities and the US embassy. I myself was locked in a basement where a kind "friend" had led me to use a toilet (which turned out to be a men's bathroom), at which point he refused to unlock the door until I would "allow" him to kiss me! My husband was only 50 yards away, but it made no difference to this shameless man.

I do have to agree, though, that clothes don't much matter, and neither does having kids. I once saw two men catcalling a woman walking by (very modestly dressed, in a South Asian salwar kameez) with a 2 week old infant. Evidently, according to these charmers, motherhood had given her great breasts! So, yeah, in the end I agree with Muhammad - dress however you like, since nothing's really going to make it stop, so you might as well be comfortable (within obvious reason).

I'm not claiming that any of this is particularly serious, though it has been disturbing to all involved and has seriously colored my ability to enjoy life in Egypt. Worse for me, though, is the comments that people (of all social classes, unfortunately) make about me on the basis of the fact that my husband is brown (an American of Indian origin). People come right out and ask if we've eloped, since my parents couldn't "possibly have approved" and when I correct them on that front, they have told me to my face that my family must be poor or have a bad reputation. Restaurants where I eat on my own or with friends suddenly don't have a table or rush us out the door, etc.

Obviously, this is not a strictly "tourist" perspective, since I've been living here for two years and will remain for two more. I have lived in 2 other Arab countries and traveled in several others, and I've never seen or experienced anything like this.

Mohamed said...

Wow, that's a first for me to hear such stories. That is sure one miserable experience you're having here, and I really feel terrible about all those stories. Why should you keep up with that?! Have you ever thought of just packing and leaving.

Mohamed said...

I hope you didn't get me wrong in my last statement there. I wasn't implying that you should leave (ofcourse not), I was just wondering. Hey, half of the Egyptians look forward to pack and leave, so no offence intended.

Anonymous said...

Yes, we have thought of leaving, and certainly will at the end of my husband's contract in 2007. We have some very good friends and a reasonably comfortable life here, but the extent to which we both hole ourselves up in our apartment (it's not easy for my husband to listen to people being sleazy with me, either...) is not healthy for us in the long term.

I travel for my own work to other countries in the region, as I mentioned, so I'm quick to point out that this has nothing to do with Western (mis)conceptions of "Arab" culture, which is far from uniform. A part of this, according to Egyptian friends, is the anonymity of the "big city" - if asked, streetcorner sleazes would admit that this behavior is unacceptable, but increasingly people are alienated from their communities of origin and are thus unaccountable.

But it's obviously not just that. The worst cases are almost always the boys from the elite private schools near my house, decide to practice their English..."Nice tits, lady, but the ass is too big." I get so angry at the depth of gender priveldge that lets young boys talk to grown women so disrespectfully.

I really appreciate your sympathy on this, and I'm sorry to have brought it to your attention. I just thought that your advice to Leila was not based on personal experience, so I might liven it up a little.

Mohamed said...

I don't know if its the 'anonymity of the "big city"', its just plain rudeness and bad manners.

I considered what I said to be reasonably based on personal experiences (of foreigners I knew here, and some who lived for a while here). One of the things I was glad to hear when my Canadian friends where recently here, is that the girl was saying that people stare here. But its not as bad as Mexico for example where guys there actually grab women from their body parts. I took a sigh of relief when I heard that, thinking that we still have some way to go!!

I just read your first comment again. "Restaurants ... suddenly don't have a table or rush us out the door, etc." If its any consolation, they do that with everyone.

Anonymous said...

Again, I disagree, but underneath it, I think we're thinking similarly. When I said that they don't have a table, it was a contrast. There's a restuarant in Mohandessin where I ate with friends (other whiteys) at least once but often twice a week last summer. We were NEVER rushed (love that about Cairo) and had a lovely time. We also, of course, spent a lot of money during that time. I was on a first-name basis with the Maitre d'.

When I came with a different group - my brown husband, an African-American diplomat, a Haitian from the UNHCR, and an Egyptian-American friend, that's when we were asked to leave. We boycotted the place for awhile, but honestly, it's so great that we couldn't keep it up.

The point is this: Yes, tables to disappear and diners are rushed, just not when they're white. I think that's a part of the problem that you originally defined in the post, a consequence of the tourist economy as it is currently in practice. Two or three white women may be an asset, but a group of brown people...well, they're no better than Egyptians! My husband is often mistaken for Egytpian, and is certain that he's never treated worse than when people think he's one of them...

That, of course, is tragic.

Hellme said...

Hello Anon;

While I find most of what you said true in some sense, I can't help but feel that if you took out the word 'Cairo' and replaced with any other, it would seem far too common.

Verbal abuse by the uber yuppies of Cairo? Beats being molested (as a 6'2 male) at 8:00pm next to 7'11 in NJ, or by 'chavs' next to Tescos in the UK. Tragic it is.

Don't get me wrong - I never claimed that living in Egypt doesn't take its toll - hell, I have trouble walking through certain neighbourhoods, and I'm an Egyptian male, big too. It's a class thing in my case. But after a considerable tour around the planet, I've found that you really can't escape critisism from others in poorer areas. With Cairo, everywhere is - to a large extent - poor. Never mind the 'onion skin' effect (i.e. Maadi, Garden City and Zamalek) where the rich and expats occupy some areas while the rest of the neighbourhoods rot away - in general, Cairo is a poor city. Same applies everywhere else on the planet - if you're in a poor area, expect intimidation, some level of harrasment (for money, marriage, wares, etc), and expect to feel uncomfortable about the whole thing. I don't envy you, because I know exactly how you feel simply because I am not pasty white in a country full of common dross who find it fun to ask me about my turban or where I parked my camel.

hellme said...

Note that I don't drive a camel and do not wear a turban, and my friends back home call me 'white boy.'

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