The Problems of a Tourism-Based Economy
Having spent five months in the Middle East, I had become enamoured by the friendliness, openness and honesty of the people. Before I came away, upon mentioning places like “Syria” I was met by quite strong, bordering upon violent, reactions. “Are you crazy?” I was asked. But Syria was a very safe, pleasant place. Wherever you were, at whatever time, people would offer heartfelt welcomes and were keen to show you the positive side of their country, far from its “axis of evil” status. Of course, this autocratic country has a lot of problems, but the people have a lot to teach us isolated westerners about generally being nice to one-another.
Here in Egypt, however, I was forced to shed this degree of trust, bordering on naïvety, on what people said, and adopt a sense of cynicism that increased the further in I traveled. Upon arriving in Nuweiba, I was given the rather useful piece of that everything in Egypt has to be negotiated, particularly as an khawaaja. Bartering in a souq is commonplace throughout the region, but in Egypt as a foreigner, even “fixed-price” items would see their price elevated when asking bikam? - “how much?”. Everyday events, such as taking a shay in a café or buying supplies in a shop, became a loathsome task as one is forced to negotiate the “real” price.
Speaking a little Arabic helped me a little with the rapport, and being able to read the menus & prices in Arabic gave me another bargaining tool. Yet the prices fixed to the wall were often claimed to be “no longer valid”. The phrase “no, everywhere in Egypt the price is …” became an everyday muttering as I was faced with a juice-vendor trying to charge me three times what I knew the real price to be. This was particularly prevalent in Aswan.
In a country with an economy based so heavily on tourism, and admittedly, having only visited the “big-hitters” of cities in Egypt, I had a very different view on the types of rencontres that I had experienced elsewhere. But even in the most touristy establishments of Damascus, I could not envisage the same level of exploitation that I had seen in seemingly local cafés in Aswan.
In Egypt’s defence, not everybody is like this. Upon arriving in Cairo, a young guy insisted on accompanying me to the centre of town, showing me the buses and trying to pay for every fare. From where I was staying in Mohandiseen in Cairo, the very friendly lady selling fruit would not let me pay for my morning banana as I left the house; she was not accustomed to seeing tourists & so her livelihood didn’t depend on them. It is those who depend on tourists for their income that give the country a bad name.
With a Nubian inhabitant of Elephantine Island, which sits between the Nile’s east & west banks at Aswan, a conversation offered further respite. Even though he worked in the tourism industry — a usual warning sign — he was very reproachful of his dishonest compatriots. “This is wrong” he told me when talking of this exploitative behaviour, citing an exchange he had witness in a local restaurant where the price had been elevated for two visiting foreigners.
Egypt has a reputation of being one of the “safer” countries in the Middle East and receives millions of tourists every year. If more of the countrymen of my Nubian rencontre would adopt his attitude, Egypt could use its status to portray a different image of the Middle East, exemplifying the positive sides of the culture which sit with such contrast against those that we often read about.