Last July, I set out to reserve a hotel room in the Upper Egyptian city of Minya for a work trip. A quick and easy task, I thought. However, the ensuing difficulties gave the impression that all the reports of Egypt’s retreating tourism industry are untrue and that the country is in the midst of an exceptional boom.
Over 10 hotels that I called told me they were fully booked. Minya is not exactly Egypt’s prime tourist destination and, what’s more, this was during a heat wave that made Upper Egypt less than ideal for leisure trips.
I tried hotels of varying standards from hostels to luxury five star hotels, and got the same answer from all of them, even when I inquired about a later date. A clue that these rejections were not due to a sudden boom in local tourism came when one of the receptionists asked first about the identity of the person staying in the room before acting busy for a couple of seconds then giving me the standard answer.
I faced the same problem a few weeks earlier when I was trying to book a hotel stay for another work trip in Mansoura. After several failed attempts, I managed to score a room. But I promptly gave it up when a colleague from Mansoura recounted that two years ago the manager had insisted on locking a woman alone in her room from 9 pm onwards and keeping the key.
Conservative customs mean that is unsurprising that women wanting to travel alone face resistance from families who consider it a breach of traditions and a dangerous endeavor. However, a growing practice in the hospitality business has added another layer that now requires women to convince not only their families but also hotel managers of their right to travel without chaperones.
Mada Masr spoke to women who were turned away from hotels across the country from Alexandria to Upper Egypt, and even some hotels in the capital.
Most of the cases that Mada Masr encountered occurred in middle level hotels (three or four stars), suggesting that lower levels are less selective while five-star hotels are obliged to abide by higher standards of hospitality. Their international affiliations may prevent them from refusing service for reasons related to social traditions, although some five-star hotels have also been guilty of the practice.
Even having her eight-year old daughter with her and nowhere to stay wasn’t enough to convince several three-star hotels to give 32-year-old Mona al-Bazz a room on a recent trip to Alexandria. Several hotels, including Cleopatra and Al-Haram, told Bazz that the management had a policy against accommodating women alone, requiring her to either have a male next of kin with her or get a permit from the morality police. She tried several times to explain that the presence of a male immediate family member was impossible as she is divorced, her father is deceased and she has no brothers.
Bazz was compelled to roam the Corniche until after 10 pm with her daughter fighting off sleep, going into every hotel she saw until someone finally agreed to provide them with a room.
“I was really offended — there’s no reason to humiliate someone this way,” says Bazz.
The stories of the women who recounted being denied service to Mada Masr show that there’s one condition that can save a woman from this ordeal: having a male next of kin accompanying her. Women faced the problem alone, in groups of female relatives, in mixed groups and even with male relatives who were not next of kin.
Dina Amr, a 29-year-old teacher, always faces challenges finding somewhere to stay with her mother and sister in various governorates, including Cairo and Port Said. The family usually stays at military-owned hotels where they receive discounts as Amr’s father served in the military. There, Amr’s aunt’s husband — her closest male relative, given that her father is deceased and she has no brothers — has to make the reservation for them as well as be present when they check in.
“Now I save myself the feelings of inferiority and just stay at a hostel,” Amr says.
Although all the women that Mada spoke with are over 21 years of age, several of them had been treated as if they were minors. At Hotel Cleopatra in Alexandria — which is the most recurring offender in the incidents Mada Masr documented — reception told 31-year-old Amira Salah that the hotel “cannot be responsible for her.” After failing to convince several three-star hotels in Alexandria to give her a room, she was compelled to stay at a more expensive five-star hotel.
Other hotels appear to arbitrarily raise the age of adulthood for women. Hager al-Sayed was told that she could not stay at a hotel in Alexandria because she is less than 45 years old.
“I’m a university teaching assistant. I’m 32, I’m not a teenager.” Sayed says. “The situation made me feel very humiliated.”
One hotel owner, explaining why he could not offer her a room, said, “I’m a respectable man and have a reputation to preserve.”
Miss Tahra, manager of Ikhnatoun Hotel in Minya, explains that the main concern is sexual affairs between hotel guests, which the hotel would be legally liable for charges such as prostitution if the police caught an unmarried couple in a room.
“Girls tell their parents they’re travelling for work and then they set everything up and their boyfriends stay in another room and they do anything they want, and that can’t happen,” she says.
For that reason, the hotel asks women to present a letter from a family member or place of work or study to be her “sponsor.”
Several women recount being asked for such a letter as the hotels attempt to clear themselves from any liability. When Ahmed Ragab wanted to book a room for his female colleagues for a conference they were organizing in Minya in 2012, he made up an imaginary company and committed in its name to take responsibility for the women.
Tahra clarifies that these rules do not apply to foreign female guests: “For them, out-of-marriage relationships are normal. They can even stay in the same room — they don’t care and we don’t care either.”
A post by Mayar Abaza circulated on Facebook in July in which she complained about Rixos hotel in Alamein, a five-star franchise of an international chain, refusing to give her and her sister a room despite their reservation, declaring that they “don’t house singles.” The hotel has a policy of only accommodating married couples and families, denying service to both men and women who are alone.
A receptionist at the hotel, speaking to Mada Masr on condition of anonymity, explains the reasoning: “There’s no difference between girls and boys now. Imagine what would happen if a girl is staying on her own and the devil plays with her head?”
“Imagine a guy staying on his own, sees a family with a pretty girl and whistles at her, or a girl staying on her own, sees a family with a cute boy and does the same,” the receptionist says. “We decided to avoid these situations completely and just accommodate families and married couples.”
A number of hotel managers told Mada that a clause in the tourism law specifies that women should not stay alone or that they received instructions from security disallowing it. But Nagy Eryan, member of the Hotels Chamber in the Tourism Chambers Union, asserts that there is no legal basis for this practice and that hotels act on their own accord. He adds that women denied service because of their gender have the right to file a report at the nearest police station. Eryan says he is surprised this is happening while the country is in the midst of a tourism crisis that has increased hotels’ dependence on local customers for survival.