Friday, 18 March 2011

Letter from Cairo 18th March 2011

The tourists' view of paradise

It is very sad to see how tourism has been suffering since the revolution.  At the time of the uprising, over a million tourists fled Egypt.  This sector represents 11% of the country's income and employs something in the region of one in eight Egyptians.  The hotels, casinos and bars are totally empty.  A British friend and her husband recently spent a weekend in the famous Winter Palace Hotel in Luxor, which was built in 1886 on the banks of the Nile, it boasts 86 rooms and 6 suites but there were only four other guests, giving a total of 6 guests and three occupied rooms.  They visited the temple of Karnak, which is a must, and were the only people there.  They visited the Valley of the Kings, also a must, and were the only people there.  The guides were supremely happy to see them and were under the false notion that tourists were now returning to Egypt and their disappointment was visible when, having asked where the couple came from, they were told that they were residents in Cairo.  The wealth of pharaonic sites and antiquities in Egypt are, at the moment, lonely and neglected.

The Sinai coast, with its year-round sea temperatures averaging between 20° and 29° is void of visitors and such sites as the Giza Pyramids stand ominously empty.  Yet workers in such resorts as Sharm El-Sheikh, famous for its diving centres, are optimistic that tourists will be drawn to a country that managed to rid itself of its dictatorship.  The first two months of the year are usually somewhat chilly yet, generally, hotels have an occupancy of 75% during January and February; sadly this has sunk to 11%.

It has to be said that this is not the first time that Egypt's tourist industry has suffered almost fatal disruption caused by riots or terrorist bombings, but somehow, it always gets back on its feet again; the everlasting fascination with Ancient Egypt always brings the tourists back.

The ‘Bread Riots’ of 1977 only marginally affected Egypt’s tourism as this was a spontaneous uprising by the poor protesting the termination of state subsidies on basic foodstuffs.  This is not to say that the matter was not serious, on the contrary, the country was beleaguered by savage repression resulting in hundreds of deaths. The riots' origin lay in Sadat’s Infitah policy, which was a strategy to "open the door" to private investment. In 1976 Egypt had a large debt burden, and late in that year Sadat took a series of loans from the World Bank with the condition that state subsidies on foodstuffs and other essential commodities would be severely limited. As a result of the riots, the government backed down in two days. 

There was a decrease in the influx of tourists in 1985 and 1986 and this was attributed to the hijacking of the Italian liner, the Achille Lauro, towards the end of 1985, the security police riots in Cairo in February 1986 and the United States air raid on Libya in April 1986.

I particularly remember the police riots as they had a devastating effect on tourism.  The police officers at that time were recruited from the poorest sectors of society and were paid the equivalent of about $4 per month and they began their mutiny when they heard rumours that the government was going to extend their two-year enlistments for another year. They set fire to four luxury hotels in the Giza governorate of Cairo and vandalized other symbols of luxury such as nightclubs. 

What is particularly interesting today, in the light of current events, is that these riots raised serious questions about the stability of the Mubarak regime which was widely perceived as having failed to solve Egypt’s mounting economic difficulties.  There was an enormous amount of frustration at that time among the poor and the opportunity to vent that frustration goaded mobs of Egyptian youths from the poorer quarters to join the riots. They roamed the streets, looting stores and attacking cars and buses and shooting indiscriminately. In my mind, I can still hear the staccato sounds of automatic weapons peppering the night air.

Although the situation at the end of January this year was somewhat different, similarities lie in the fact that once the police force had gone into hiding, a few days into the revolution, thugs began looting shops and businesses and until quite recently either they or ‘friends’ of the NDP were attacking cars and buses and kidnapping their occupants.

However, to return to February 1986, I remember very clearly that my sons’ school closed for some days and that many of the residents of Zamalek could be found lounging around on the terrace of the Marriott hotel at all hours of the day, two doors away from my building.  The stoics amongst us were not particularly frightened by the events and life became something of a holiday.  A curfew was also put in place on the first day of the riots and on that particular day our closest friends were due to hold a party, to which we were invited, for some sixty work colleagues and friends.  The couple in question lived behind us on Saraya Gezira Street, which is the other side of what became known as the ‘golden triangle’.  This is an elongated triangle of buildings which are considered the most elegant representation of 1930s to1940s architecture and which, at that time, were occupied by many journalists, writers and artists and, somewhat oddly, our friends who were diplomats.  Of the sixty people invited only a dozen or so were able to attend the party and these were residents of the ‘triangle’ who managed to reach their destination by skulking through the alleyways between Gezira Street and Saraya Gezira Street.  Needless to say, it was impossible for twelve of us to consume the luscious banquet that my friend had spent days preparing, so the following evening, the leftovers were brought to my apartment and we held another soiree and did our best to devour the rest of the food, washed down by lashings of French wine.  Yet again, we failed!  For a third evening the feast was seen to be moved to yet another apartment on the triangle accompanied by the same clan stealthily moving through the alleyways and ducking into doorways at the first sign of any movement in the streets.

By the end of the riots not a tourist was to be seen and would not be seen in any significant numbers for quite a few months and we were able to turn this situation to our advantage.  A friend of ours owned a travel agency and two or three Nile Cruise boats of varying sizes, the smallest of which he was willing to put at our disposal for a cruise between Luxor and Aswan.  We managed to gather together a group of friends in order to make the most of this offer and several weeks later at a ridiculously low cost we flew to Luxor and boarded the boat.  The captain and crew were entirely at our service and could not do enough for us and meals and drinks were served with great affability. 

As all of has had previously participated in a Nile cruise, we did not have to arise at the crack of dawn and traipse around the sites with a dreary crowd of intense tourists, all masquerading as experienced Egyptologists, while listening to a guide gabbling in a monotonous tone with a heavy accent facts and figures that he has learnt by heart, in the same manner that he has memorized the verses of the Quran. Of course we visit the sites that interested us as many of them are worth second and third visits but we did so in our own time.  We sauntered at our own pace through Karnak and around the town of Luxor, had lunch and a long siesta and spent the evening enjoying our own private party on the boat, consuming cocktails and eating a sumptuous dinner.  The next morning we set off for Edfu at a very leisurely speed, stopping and starting wherever and whenever we wanted to.  In fact, throughout the cruise, we were able to choose where we wished to anchor for the night and naturally chose the most beautiful spots from which to watch sunrise and sunset.  And so to Kom Ombo and eventually Aswan, always at the same unhurried pace and with a wonderful sense of owning the Nile; we seemed to be the only boat on the river apart from the incredibly graceful feluccas which continually glided alongside us.

The tourists eventually returned to Egypt and the industry picked up and surpassed itself with a dramatic rise in the numbers of visitors, in spite of the negative repercussions of the 1991 Gulf War.  But disaster struck in a particularly repugnant manner when, on 17th November 1997, fifty eight tourists were murdered at the temple of Queen Hatshepsut in Luxor.  This time, the impact was prodigious and the country’s economy suffered for some sixth months.

There were terrorist attacks on hotels in Sinai in 2004, a series of bomb attacks on Sharm el-Sheikh in 2005, another in Dahab in 2006 and finally on 22nd February 2009 in the Khan el-Khalili souk in Cairo, which was followed by a second bomb that failed to detonate.

But, the tourists always come back and will soon want to see the country which so exceptionally overthrew its government.

Tomorrow the somewhat controversial referendum will take place and the people will vote for or against the eight amendments to the existing constitution.  More about that later!


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