Wooing Jittery Tourists Back to Egypt

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Mohamed Abd El-Ghany / Reuters

A tourist walks in front of the Great Giza pyramids on the outskirts of Cairo Jan. 9th, 2011.

Chantal and Jean Gabriel Blanc are having the vacation of their lives. After all, they practically have Egypt's most famous destinations all to themselves. The French couple rave about the deserted beaches at Red Sea resorts that are usually overrun with tourists. The recent revolution, which overthrew one of the Arab world's longest serving dictators, may have been a victory for the Egyptians (and the Blancs), but it was a disaster for the country's tourism industry. More than a million visitors fled during the first week of the 18-day-long protests, according to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

Visitors who ignored international travel advisories and stayed may have suffered the occasional whiff of tear gas, curfews or disturbing sights like tanks on the streets. But these more intrepid visitors also got the chance to witness modern history in the making and can perhaps better appreciate Egypt's past. On a day trip to visit the pyramids, just outside of Cairo, the Blancs relished the solitude. "You can almost imagine what it was like during the Pharos' time, when it was just desert and no people," says Jean Gabriel Blanc, gesturing to the stone courtyard between the outstretched paws of the Sphinx. "I could meditate here."

Of course, not everyone is thrilled. Just in front of the pyramids, tour guides, trinket sellers and men offering camel rides stand morosely in small groups, listlessly smoking cigarettes and fretting about how they will be able to afford their next meal. Guide Abdullah Faid says he hasn't had a job since January 25th, the day the protests started in Cairo's Tahrir Square. His family's papyrus shop is shuttered for lack of business, though he offers to open it up in the hopes of a quick sale. He's not sure yet if the revolution has been good for his country. Faid acknowledges that Egypt's overthrown leader, Hosni Mubarak, was corrupt and stole from the people. But he says that the doings of the elite rarely had an effect on his own livelihood, which came from generous foreign tourists. The protestors in the square may be happy, he grumbled, but his own life had decidedly taken a turn for the worse. "Before, I never had to worry about feeding my family. Now I'm not even sure I will have enough to eat by the end of the day."

An estimated 1.8 million Egyptians are directly employed in the tourism sector, and another five million in secondary industries like the manufacture and sale of tourism-related merchandise. If you multiply that by an average family size of eight, says Tarek Swelim, an art historian who leads specialized tour groups for visitors from the U.S., "You will realize what huge impact this has on Egypt as a whole." The Ministry of Foreign Affairs estimates that tourists spend some $318 million a day.

Such a significant loss of income might explain the bizarre footage broadcast around the world of a camel charging through Cairo's Tahrir Square on day nine of the protests. The camel-rider and a group of men on horseback wheeled around the square bashing protestors with riding crops while yelling at them to clear out. If anyone knows who the men were, Faid won't say. But he does admit that they came from the very same group of camel guides and horsemen now milling around the base of the pyramids in search of customers. "Look, I don't like that camel man, because I think he gave a wrong image of Egyptians, and now people won't want to take camel rides any more," says Faid. Still, he understands the guy's motivation. Standing in front of the great pyramid of Cheops, Faid waves his hand at the entrance gates just down the road. Normally, he says, the lines in front of the ticket booths would be scores deep. Now, you can just make out a couple of horses dozing in the shade of a tree and a street empty of taxis. "We are not asking for the government to give us anything. We just want to work. We want to do our jobs. But the protesters scared everyone away. We were upset."

Despite the short term losses, Swelim, who has had two major American tour groups — one from the Stanford Alumni Association and the other from Yale — cancel planned trips, believes that Egypt will eventually be better off. "Yes, tourism definitely flourished during Mubarak. But that doesn't mean everything else did." He describes a deteriorating education system and stagnating political scene. It was economy that benefited a tiny elite and a society in decline. "We have a chance to start over, and when we do, we will have even more tourists coming. They will want to go to Tahrir Square to see where Egyptians stood up to a modern-day pharaoh. This isn't so far fetched. After all, New York's "Ground Zero," site of the attacks of September 11th, is now one of the city's visited sites.

Turning the site of the revolution into a tourist destination can only happen after Western countries lift their travel advisories warning their citizens not to visit. At the moment, say officials, the situation is still too tense to make a call. Tanks are still out on the streets, and protests — over housing, pay or labor disputes — could turn violent. The police have not returned to their posts, and while crime does not seem to be too much of a concern, it is true that security at several prisons was breached during the prisons, allowing criminals to escape.

Until the embassies are comfortable that security has returned, they are unlikely to alter their warnings. American state department regulations require a minimum 30-day wait period before Egypt's status can be changed. That's when things will start looking up, says Swelim. "The Americans are the most fragile. Once it's known that the Americans are coming back, everyone else will come too." Until then, the more adventuresome tourists like the Blancs will enjoy having the country to themselves. "Last year it would have been impossible to get a picture in front of the Sphinx with out a crowd," says Chantal Blanc, holding up her camera like a trophy. "This is the best time to visit Egypt." Egyptians are hoping that idea catches on.