Monday, August 29, 2011

Tourism Slow to Return to Egypt

The Nile River in Cairo
 Mercury News: Exploring Egypt months after a revolution rocked the Middle East, the only conflict we witnessed was between a taxi and carriage driver, furiously arguing over our business.

The sidewalk scene was unsettling to a pair of tourists simply seeking a ride down the street. But it was nothing compared to our pre-travel fears, fueled by media reports of violence. And it revealed a larger truth: In a nation so dependent on tourism, these are very tough times. Curious to explore a nation in transition, my 22-year-old daughter and I discovered that Egypt's loss was our gain.

The turmoil in January caused visitors to rush for the exits -- and they've stayed away, through the long, hot summer. The ongoing trial of ousted President Hosni Mubarak, triggering clashes between supporters and detractors, won't fix things quickly -- rather, it is one step in a long process of building the new Egypt, with elections and constitutional reforms still ahead.

But the nation's Pharaonic treasures and pyramids are as stunning as ever. And there's a new tourist attraction: Cairo's Tahrir Square, where demonstrators gathered in anti-government protests. Although not much to look at, it is a symbol of peaceful resistance, ringed by vendors doing a brisk trade in "25th January" T-shirts, flags, caps and bumper stickers.

We also admired triumphant graffiti, marveled at Mubarak's burned-out headquarters of the National Democratic Party and toured an art display dedicated to the revolution.

It's not necessary to line up for hours, as is customary, to enter the carved tombs in Luxor's Valley of the Kings. Instead, we experienced what English archaeologist Howard Carter must have felt in 1923, peering down lonely tunnels for that first glimpse of Tutankhamun's sarcophagus.

Riderless camels and horses ringed the empty sand-swept parking lots of the pyramids at Giza, where hundreds of tour guides, postcard sellers and trinket sellers also waited for customers.

There was no jostling for snapshots of the Sphinx. At the famed Egyptian Museum, about 200,000 people a day once paraded past dimly lit cabinets of antiquities. We were free to stroll around and linger at favorite sights.

Along the Nile, many traditional falouka sailboats were roped to the docks.

Even the touristy Red Sea beach resort of Sharm el-Sheikh, far from Cairo's turbulence, offered deeply discounted rooms. So did the more charming smaller towns north to Jordan. "It is very safe and very quiet here," said Ali Osman, front office manager of the stunning Coralia Club Hotel in the sleepy south Sinai Peninsula beach town of Dahab. Like its next-door neighbors -- the Meridian, Hilton and other upscale hotels -- this elegant Sofitel hotel closed its doors in late January, rather than operate at a loss. In February, only 35 percent of rooms were filled.

"We drop our rates to keep reasonable occupancy," Osman said. Our lovely oceanview room, with a delicious breakfast and dinner included, cost only $95. Yet the hotel was half empty.

As always, Russians are everywhere. Australians have begun to venture back, along with New Zealanders. We saw a scattering of French and Brits.

But there were no signs of Americans.

One morning at dawn, I climbed aboard the small motorboat of naturalist Mohamed Arabi -- "The Birdman of Aswan" -- and had a personal introduction to exotic Nile species such as sunbirds, gallinules and storks. "Because of all the American propaganda outside, only you, you're the only one here!" he despaired. "What kind of problems you see today? There is not any problem. There is no problem at all."

Questionable decision?
Back home in Palo Alto, while we packed for our trip, worried friends asked: "What about Lara Logan?" -- the CBS war correspondent who was stripped by a mob and then sexually assaulted, requiring four days of hospitalization, while a crowd of 100,000 celebrated the fall of Mubarak in Tahrir Square; she was saved by women, who closed ranks around her. Privately, family members questioned my parenting skills.

It is true that Egypt has no head of state. The civil police, symbols of Mubarak's repression, abruptly have withdrawn. Political unrest continues in neighboring nations.

Thousands of troops have been moved into the Sinai Peninsula as part of a major operation against al-Qaida inspired militants, increasingly active there since Mubarak's ouster. Authorities have blamed these militants for the Aug. 18 attack of Israelis on the southern Israel-Egypt border, as well as pipeline bombings in the north. The violence does not appear to be targeting tourists.

But of this I was sure: Opportunities don't wait for perfect timing.

My daughter had just graduated from college and had an entire month free. My work at this newspaper, covering higher education, had slowed for the summer. Plus, we already had under our belt other memorable adventures in edgy nations within Africa and Latin America.

So we went. Cautiously.

We steered clear of political gatherings in Cairo, particularly after the mosques emptied on Fridays. We were careful to dress conservatively, to not walk alone or venture into the poorest neighborhoods, or look strange men directly in the eye.

The U.S. Embassy has received increasing reports during the past several months of foreign women being harassed, or groped in taxis and in public places. We encountered no threats -- just frequent catcalls that grew annoying, like mosquitoes. When hounded, it's permissible to be loud and offensive, saying "Bas!" ("Stop!"). When confronted, no one wished to make a scene.

("Tourist police" were everywhere; in exchange for help, they asked for spare change.)

Traffic jams have intensified since the departure of the police, creating chaotic streets in Cairo. We found it faster to walk, or take the subway. But we experienced no pickpocketing or property crime, so common elsewhere in the world. Perhaps because Egypt is so dependent on tourism, it seems to take the safety of visitors seriously.

"My biggest fear is that I'll turn a corner and bump into a camel," said Renate Emmler, a German electrical engineer who now works as an instructor at the Black Rock Dive Centre in Dahab. Anti-U.S. anger was targeted toward American politicians, not average citizens -- an important distinction. And while locals anxiously wanted to discuss politics, we avoided debates involving Israel.

The biggest nuisance was the vendors, desperately trying to sell their wares. Who could blame them? Tourism is the lifeblood for this country of more than 85 million people. Egyptians hoped that the overthrow of Mubarak would improve their lives, but many in the tourism industry are economically worse off than before the revolution.

After January's uprising, revenues from tourism collapsed, putting pressure on the balance of payments and starting a slide in foreign reserves, according to a recent analysis by the Economist.

Slow recovery
Hopes were high; now restless young men who lost their hotel or taxi jobs sit around cafes, with cellphones in hand, waiting for any odd work. Unemployment is highest among 15- to-20-year-olds.

"Before, I made money and could feed my horses and family. We were busy all day, going here, going there. I had two people working for me," said one man, who asked not to be identified, seeking to sell horseback rides to tourists along a Dahab beach. "Now look, there are only 30 or 50 people on the beach -- for three hotels! I am scared."

Egypt's economic growth is expected to slow to just 1 percent this year, a sharp drop from a 5.5 percent rate in the second half of 2010, according to a report in April by the International Monetary Fund. The drop in tourist revenue is a big part of the problem; only ship traffic through the Suez Canal brings in more money.

"It's not just the hotels, but all the workmen related to the hotel -- the maintenance people, the electricians, the plumbers ..." said Hanan Attiatallah, a German-educated woman who owns Aswan's lovely and newly renovated Philae Hotel. If the economy improves, it could help consolidate democracy; if it falters, it could undermine progress. In our own modest way, we were happy to help and witness, with few other tourists, both the old and newly emerging Egypt.

"This is the moment for everyone who wishes the Egyptian revolution well to visit," Egyptian novelist and political commentator Ahdaf Soueif recently wrote in the London Guardian. "Everyone who's interested in the great experiment we're living through should come and be part of it."

"It will settle down," Attiatallah predicted. "But for now, guests who like to take this adventure, they should come here now."

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