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Before talking tourism, Egypt needs to put its house in order

The sight of the great pyramids of Giza looming suddenly above the urban chaos of the Haram district is one of the most astonishing vistas the world has to offer. These days, however, exclamations of delight have to be quickly followed by a warning to lock the door and close the windows, to keep touts from trying to climb into the car.

The desperation that causes such aggressive tactics is understandable. Nowadays, Egypt is in the headlines more for sporadic bombings, rowdy demonstrations and security crackdowns than for its wealth of tourist attractions. Unsurprisingly, tourist arrivals have tumbled, from a peak of around 14 million in 2010, to just 9.5 million last year, most of whom did not venture beyond the controlled environment of the Red Sea resorts.

Tourism minister Hisham Zaazou recently told reporters that 2013 was the worst year for the industry in modern history. For the roughly 10 percent of Egyptians whose jobs depend directly or indirectly on tourism, the decline has been devastating.

Given everything that’s going on, who would possibly come to visit Egypt, of all possible places in the world, at all possible times?

My parents, it turns out.

During their weeklong stay earlier this month, I had a rather special opportunity to observe and discuss the experience of two Americans on their first visit to Egypt during this unsettled and unsettling time.

Granted, my parents have personal reasons for a trip to Egypt that most tourists lack: me, and my in-laws, most of whom they had not previously met in person. But they also have some of the same reasons most visitors have: an interest in Egypt’s art and antiquities as well as the desire to see new things and enjoy some warm weather.

Traveling to Egypt right now is also an astoundingly good deal. All in all, my parents’ roundtrip tickets from New York to Cairo were a bargain at $735 each. Hotel and cruise prices have been slashed as well, and the low numbers of tourists means that we could at times wander Egypt’s monuments almost on our own, with time and quiet for contemplation and reflection.

I should start off, as I’m sure they would wish, by emphasizing that my parents had a fabulous time (or at least were polite enough to put on a convincing show of it). The temples and tombs we visited were, to quote my father, “awesome,” in the old-school, wonder-and-astonishment sense of the word.

The weather was pleasingly balmy. My in-laws amply lived up to Egyptians’ reputation for hospitality, as did the guides, drivers and waiters, shopkeepers and temple attendants we encountered on our travels, as well as helpful strangers like the English teacher-cum-crossing guard who stopped traffic outside of the Egyptian Museum so that my clearly terrified parents could cross Meret Basha Street unharmed. (Thank you, kind sir!)

Even the mad bedlam of Cairo roads, what my mother describes as “traffic and insane driving conditions,” was a source of fascination, though my mother did confess to spending a lot of time worrying about pedestrians. (See above).

With these disclaimers out of the way, however, the experience that week has also made it clear to me that Egypt has a long way to go before it is likely to see tourist arrivals pick up again.

The weeks preceding my parents’ visit were marred by violence. The trip had been discussed for months, but we got down to planning the details just as things got really crazy. On January 24, four bombs went off in Cairo, one just blocks away from my apartment. The next day saw the third anniversary of the revolution grimly commemorated with street clashes that led to tens of deaths. That was also the day my parents booked their tickets.

Then, on February 16, a tourist bus was bombed in Taba, killing three Korean tourists and their driver. Then, a Twitter account that claimed to represent the group behind the Taba bombing — quickly identified as spurious — threatened that any foreigners in Egypt would be in danger after February 20. My parents were scheduled to arrive on February 27.

To my surprise, my parents seemed mostly unfazed by the news, but that wasn’t the case for their friends in the United States. “People were concerned, really concerned. People said ‘is it safe?’” recalled my father. “People just chimed in with warnings and surprise,” added my mother.

Even without the question of personal safety, many of my parents’ acquaintances questioned the ethics of coming to Egypt at this time. “Everybody assumes that it’s not a democracy, and that it’s being taken over by military thuggery,” said my father. “There’s a question of, are you supporting the regime by coming to Egypt right now. And I don’t want to be supporting the regime.”

Another factor weighing on their minds was the xenophobic, anti-American propaganda that has been rampant in pro-regime media since June 30 — for example, the televised speculation by prominent journalist Mostafa Bakry that an American plot to assassinate Defense Minister Field Marshal Abdel Fattah al-Sisi would lead Egyptians to rise up and kill Americans in the streets.

“It’s not comfortable to feel that the government is trying to persuade people to view me as the enemy,” my father said. As the parents of a foreign journalist working in Egypt, they are also naturally concerned with the security crackdown on foreign media.

“If it weren’t for you, I wouldn’t go to Egypt with the current regime. It’s like endorsing what’s going on, and I don’t want to support it,” my father told me.

But, proving that some people are still crazy enough to come here, or at least that parental love overwhelms logic and scruples, they proceeded with the trip.

Along with traffic, one of the things that struck them the most upon arrival was the heavy militarization of the country, from tanks and barbed wire on the streets of Cairo to armed soldiers outside tourist attractions. “For us, as Americans, it’s a shock to see army presence on the streets. We’re used to police, but not to that,” my mother said. “I didn’t feel safe with them there, and I didn’t feel unsafe.”

More unnerving, said my father, were the plain-clothed police wielding heavy weaponry. “There’s a constant presence of all these guys with submachine guns, who appear out of nowhere and you don’t know who’s in charge,” he said. With tiny numbers of foreign tourists and huge numbers of police and soldiers, my father said he often felt simply outnumbered.

The desperation of many people in the tourist industry was also clear, and often distressing. We passed countless riverboats sitting idle, huge coach parking lots with just a tiny flow of mini-buses, and rows of empty carriages with gaunt horses and hollow-eyed drivers. Although there seemed to be a healthy flow of local tourists, we saw few foreign visitors at most of the sites we visited, and those who were there appeared to be quickly shepherded through by phalanxes of guides.

Predictably, despite the heavy security presence, we were absolutely swarmed by vendors nearly everywhere we went. “Instead of the anticipation of approaching some place with great historical importance, you feel like you’re running the gauntlet. You’re never relaxed,” said my father.

“Many times I felt like the whole thing is like killing the goose that lays the golden egg,” added my mother.

Like many tourists, she was more than prepared to help out the local economy by spending money on souvenirs, but found that the overwhelming onslaught of vendors actually prevented her from buying much of anything — getting rushed prompts a fear response, not the feelings of ease and generosity that prompt people to spend freely, she said. “Buying things just opens you up to more harassment,” added my father.

Both of my parents stress, though, that what they felt was mostly sadness for the vendors, rather than irritation. “It just seems like they need more guidance, more advocates, so they can sell more, in a way that encourages tourists to buy things,” my mother said. Why, she asked, isn’t there government-sponsored market research to see what tourists actually want to buy, or attempts at creating some kind of organized system where tourists can browse calmly and spend more, and vendors don’t have to fight for position?

“I feel, why is this country, with even its wealth of tourist attractions, so shabbily run?” said my father. “There’s a tremendous amount of wealth somewhere — probably with the army — and then there are all these people struggling and living pretty miserable lives.”

Although they profess to being glad to have come for a rare family visit to see my life and my apartment and meet my relatives here, my parents demurred when asked if they would recommend such a trip to others. “I don’t want to be seen as indifferent to all the slaughter and turmoil and corruption,” said my father.

I can’t claim that my parents are representative of all foreign tourists. But I think they may be representative of the type of well-informed and well-traveled people who might take sensational headlines with a grain of salt and consider coming to what is clearly an unstable country.

If so, it suggests that if Egypt’s government really wants to revitalize its tourist industry, it needs more than just commercials and PR campaigns trying to urge tourists the country is safe. Instead, it should perhaps tamp down the xenophobic rhetoric, work to protect its most vulnerable citizens, and clean up its human rights record.

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Isabel Esterman