The Egyptian tourism revolution

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Today is the first anniversary of the start of the Egyptian revolution. In the first of a two-part series for IA, freelance journalist Max Opray says the tourism industry is still struggling.

One year on from the January 25th Egyptian revolution, and the country's tourism industry is still enduring tough times.

Nowhere is this more evident than at the world-famous Egyptian Museum. The building faces onto Tahrir Square, the epicentre of the massive protests that morphed into a fully-fledged revolution. The headquarters of the former ruling party, located directly next-door, were set on fire. While the flames threatened to spread across to the museum, a team of thieves took advantage of the chaos and made off with some of ancient Egypt’s most important artefacts.  Tourists have been put off by persistent sectarian violence between Christians and Muslims, the tough crackdown implemented by the interim military government, and the uncertainty of Egypt’s recent election, where Islamists won two thirds of the vote.

Despite all this, Dr Mahmoud Halwagy, Deputy Director at the museum, argues that things aren’t as bad as they seem: “The media tried to make it as if our museum was looted like the one in Baghdad, but it was completely different.” He points out that over half of the 54 pieces stolen have already been recovered, which regardless are a mere drop in the ocean of the museum’s 120,000 artefacts. Tourists are still scarce, but a near doubling of local visitor numbers has in part made up for their absence. “Egyptians come to ensure their heritage is safe, and to protect it,” he says.

This isn’t the only example of Egyptian customers making up for the lost tourist dollar. Outside in Tahrir Square, 34 year-old Mohammed is one of many vendors who used to sell kitsch to the hordes of foreigners that streamed out of the museum. He was worried at first, but soon realised that patriotic protesters on vigils in the square wanted “I Love Egypt” shirts too. Business actually increased, and he introduced new revolution-themed designs to his collection. Shirts made, he notes with a hint of patriotism of his own, with 100% Egyptian cotton.

A host of other merchandise is available at the demonstrations, which still take place every Friday and on special occasions. Some boys sell little Egyptian flags, while others offer to do a body paint version. Also to be found are colourful bumper stickers of Mubarek and his cronies facing a hangman’s noose. Feeding the revolution is a collection of stalls selling ice cream, peanuts, fruit juice and more.

Small streams of tourists have started engaging in revolution-tourism, visiting the square to experience the Arab Spring first-hand. This in turn has spawned the protester-tout, who plant themselves in demonstrations in the hope of striking up conversation with curious foreigners. The touts start up conversation by offering to translate some of the fiery speeches echoing around the square, and before the tourist knows what’s happened they find themselves in a shop buying papyrus scrolls and perfume.

52-year-old Aimed (not real name) is one of many who have taken to this strategy since the dramatic drop-off in tourist numbers elsewhere in the city. Dozens of perfume and papyrus shops are in the direct vicinity of Tahrir, but for Aimed the challenge is greater than simply tricking a foreigner into walking around the corner: his shop is situated a ten-minute drive away on the other side of the Nile. This means he has to get tourists into a car, which he does by offering to drive them around the square to photograph the protests from all angles. Although it isn’t clear how many people are willing to purchase from someone who has abducted them to the other side of town, what is clear is that he doesn’t have much alternative.

With the forced smile of a worried salesman, Aimed says that before the revolution he never even had to leave his shop, which is situated in the midst of a dozen luxury hotels. “Before, they looked for me. Now, I look for them,” he laments. Although tourism is slowly picking up, Aimed says: “they are scared, so now they all book organised packages. They are told not to talk to the Egyptian people, not to walk in the street, so my shop gets nobody.”

He isn’t simply loitering in the square for business though. By attending the protests, Aimed claims to be demonstrating against a regime he abhors while doing what he can to keep food on the table. As for the damage the unrest has done to business, he says that Mubarek´s regime was a problem for tourism as well. Like many Egyptians, Aimed didn’t see the former president as a beacon of stability, but as a troublemaker who deliberately stoked tensions between Christians and Muslims, complicit in the periodic bombings and massacres that were just as bad for tourism as the revolution has been. Aimed is optimistic about the future, but deeply pessimistic about the present: “We are smiling, but it is tough.”

Unsurprisingly, not everyone in the tourist industry is pro-revolution. A case in point is the team of camel riders who, deprived of clients to take on rides around the pyramids, cavalry-charged the protesters in Tahrir Square.

Hospitality too has taken a hit, with one such example the colourfully dilapidated Gresham Hotel, located within shouting distance of Tahrir Square. Asma Saleh El-Din, morning manager at the hotel for over a year, says that business has dropped 40 per cent since the protests began. With a shock of red hair and colourful retro clothes, Asma is no social conservative, yet she is against the revolution for ideological as well as business reasons: “Nothing was wrong with how it was, Mubarek loved our country and our neighbours were jealous.” She cites his love of animals, and his help for the poor through social housing. “Democracy a little yes, but this is opposite… they stole my country away.”

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The Egyptian tourism revolution

Today is the first anniversary of the start of the Egyptian revolution. In the ...  
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