Egyptologist Ahmed M. Ali: Egypt Needs Tourism to Survive
Photo by David Cogswell
Being an Egyptian can be hard these days, especially for an Egyptian employed in the tourism industry. Ahmed M. Ali is an Egyptologist educated at Cairo University who works as a tour guide for many major tour operators. He is the author of the book By Way of Accident, an examination of the history of discovery of the great archaeological treasures of Egypt. But right now it’s the future of Egypt that concerns him.
Egypt’s once-thriving tourism industry has been struggling since the Arab Spring in 2011. Though the country has passed through the first and second waves of its social and political revolution and settled into stability, the tourists have not returned.
Egypt’s tourism industry dates back to the first Nile cruise in 1870 and has long been a vital economic sector. A large percentage of the population is dependent on tourism for its livelihood. But now Egyptians feel that the world has abandoned them. Every time Egypt appears in the Western news, it seems to be with a bad spin that makes potential tourists afraid to visit.
The most recent blemish on Egypt’s reputation as a safe tourist destination was the crash of EgyptAir 804. Though the cause of the crash has not yet been determined, the Western media has been talking about it as an act of terrorism for days, with the implication that Egypt is unsafe.
In point of fact, during the last several years, even when Egypt was undergoing social turmoil, incidents in which any tourist was hurt were almost unheard of. Why then is there so much fear of travel to Egypt? And why does the Western media seem to be hostile to Egypt? Ahmed Ali is seeking answers to those questions.
A comparison of the coverage of the crash of the Russian MetroJet flight in the Sinai desert in October 2015 and last week’s EgyptAir crash convinced Ali that there is a bias in the way news about Egypt is handled by the Western media.
“A few months ago we had the Russian plane crash over Sinai,” said Ali. “The media coverage of the two incidents was completely different. One was carrying Russians, one was carrying Egyptians and others. One started in Sharm el Sheikh, the other in Paris. After the first one everyone was pointing fingers to Egyptian airports, security measures and terrorism in Sinai. Somehow they emotionalized the whole story as if the whole country was not safe, the airports were not safe.”
In the case of the EgyptAir crash, the flight originated in Paris. The plane was built in France. The crash was over the Mediterranean. But somehow again it was Egypt that was singled out to get tarred with the brush of terrorism.
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“They never mention security measures in Europe,” he said. “They never mention anything about Paris. They only mention EgyptAir, the possibility of terrorism. So if it’s terrorism, where did this terrorism come from? It came from Paris. If there is terrorism related to this incident, it had to have come from the airport.”
Rather than pointing fingers and laying blame, the fight against terrorism requires a spirit of cooperation, said Ali.
“With terrorism, are we dealing with local phenomenon or an international phenomenon?” he said. “In Egypt we think terrorism is an international phenomenon that will force all of us to work together and collaborate. We’re fighting our own war, we’re doing our best but we’re not getting much help.”
Essential Economic Activity
Egypt needs the recovery of its tourism industry to help rebuild the country and maintain it as one of the few bastions of peace, stability and moderation in the region, something Ali argues is important to Europe and the U.S. as well as to Egypt itself.
“We have problems all around us,” he said. “Egypt is in the middle of a lot of troubles. Egypt is the only country in this part of world still standing on its feet. There are problems in Sudan, Libya, Yemen, Syria and Iraq. And in the middle of all these problems, Egypt is trying to rebuild itself. So what I’m trying to understand is why international media is pushing Egypt into the corner?”
Tourism can almost work miracles because it is an industry whose benefits go immediately and directly to the people of the country.
“When I talk about Egypt, I talk about 90 million persons,” said Ali. “I’m not talking about the president or the government, the ministers and officials. I’m talking about 90 million people who are struggling to survive. Tourism for Egyptians is very important. It is a principal source of income, providing millions of jobs. Hotels, restaurants, buses, airports, these all provide jobs. And millions of people lost their jobs because of this media coverage.”
In spite of negative publicity, there is little evidence that Egypt is unsafe. But in order for Egypt to continue as a strong, moderate ally to the U.S. in the Middle East, it needs economic stability. Supporting its tourism industry sends an infusion of capital straight into the population at the grassroots level and helps keep a moderate ally in the Middle East strong.
“Everybody confirms that Egypt is stable now,” said Ali. “With a strong government, Egypt is trying to face the storms in the Middle East and the rise of Islamic fundamentalism in Syria, Yemen, Libya and Iraq. Egypt is trying to hold onto what we call a nationalist state as opposed to a religious state, but all these countries around us are torn by religious and sectarian fighting groups. Nobody wants to see Egypt like that. We want rational, reasonable progress, reforms that take into consideration the structure of Egyptian society.”
Negative media coverage, even if inaccurate, can decimate tourism, and that can take down the country.
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“Tourism is a very sensitive industry,” said Ali, “and media plays a major role in controlling people’s emotions. With such negative reports about Egypt, ignoring the positive things that have been going on since 2015, the rebuilding of the country and the infrastructure, the strength of its government, the unity of the country and how we stand in front of this wave of barbarism and fascistic religious groups. They are pointing a finger at Egypt almost every other week and displaying a picture that is not entirely correct. Tourism gets affected by all this.”
Somehow the people of Egypt endure in spite of the virtual loss of their tourism industry, though it is not clear how much more economic duress can be sustained before it leads to serious social disruption.
“For how long can the people of the tourism business take it?” asked Ali. “How much can they take? I don’t know. This concentration on negative news about whatever happens in Egypt puts Egypt in a bad corner and I don’t know how we get out of this.”
When people do travel to Egypt, they find it to be very different from the impression they got from the media.
“Most people who come to Egypt have a whole different perspective about Egypt until they come, and then they change,” said Ali. “The lesson is clear. What people read about Egypt in most mainstream media is very bad. There is huge difference between news and writing about what you think about what is going on. We are no longer dealing with news, we are dealing with emotion making, the exportation of fear that serves other causes.”
When Americans do visit Egypt they are treated like returning heroes.
“When American tourists come to Egypt they are celebrated,” said Ali. “People meet them and welcome them. We understand that the American who visits actually loves Egypt and chooses to come against all odds, to come to learn. When people meet them in the streets they don’t think about the White House. They don’t think about the complicated foreign policy of your country. They don’t think about security measures in your airports, or the gun control problems in your country. They deal with that person as an individual, the person who chooses to come to this country.”
Ali believes that the value of tourism goes beyond mere economics.
“Tourism is the industry of hope,” he said, “and we don’t want to kill that hope. The industries of fear, politics, business and other agendas have nothing to do with tourism. Tourism is when people travel somewhere to learn and have fun, sharing wealth and experiences. So it is the industry of hope. So what we are fighting for is to be able to share hope, to support the industry of hope and optimism that tomorrow is better for everyone.”
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