Domestic travelers offer lifeline to ailing Egyptian tourism industry

Egypt - Siwa








A small number of tourists recently climbed the crumbling ramparts of Shali fortress to photograph the oasis town of Siwa in Egypt.

Between the 13th to early 20th century the fortress was home to Siwans who lived inside the salt and mud brick walls to protect themselves from marauding Bedouins who came from the north coast and over what is now the nearby Libyan border to steal from and sometimes kill these farming people.

A freak rain storm in the 1930s damaged the walls, which left them now resembling a collapsing sand castle.

This historical and picturesque setting was once a rich hub for local and international tourists, but in in post-revolution Egypt, numbers have decreased.

Until the popular uprising in early 2011, the industry accounted for more than a 10th of Egypt’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP), but foreign tourists have shown reluctance to return as sporadic unrest continues to haunt the country.

The annual Muslim celebration of Eid al-Adha is traditionally a time when Egyptians travel and in Siwa those in the tourist trade were relieved to have full tables in restaurants like Abdu’s.

This low budget eatery is recommended by the Lonely Planet guide book, making it top of the list for backpackers from abroad. But the majority of their income this year has come from domestic tourists.

This is not, according to Siwa Tourist Information Manager Mahdi Hweiti, the most desirable demographic.

”International tourism is better than domestic tourism,” said Hweiti.

”International tourists from Europe rent bikes, buy local handicrafts and they stay in the hotels for long periods, but the domestic tourists, even foreigners who live in Cairo or Alexandria, only come for short periods during the national holidays and they don’t spend much money like the international tourists coming from Europe, Asia or America,” he added.

Hweiti said overseas visitors typically make up some 25 percent of tourist numbers in Siwa.

One group of 50 mid-20-year-olds from Alexandria were in Siwa during the recent Eid al-Adha to experience the western desert and hit the dunes in a convoy of four wheel drives hired locally.

There is plenty of excitement to be had in the “Sea of Sand,” the world’s largest stretch of sand dunes and a place so vast and disorienting that myths perpetuate of whole armies being lost there.

Even experienced drivers can make mistakes on this treacherous terrain, but a short delay provides another great photo opportunity for city visitors who may might not pay the same premium as foreign tourists — Egyptians are famed for their bargaining powers — but restaurant manager and tour organizer Fathi Abdulla said they are highly valuable to the local economy.

“Domestic tourism is very important for Egypt as a whole and for Siwa specifically and all the oases,”’ said Abdulla.

“Domestic tourists come and buy handicrafts and local products, it’s easy to carry as much weight as you like and it’s easy to take it anywhere in Egypt. For international tourists it’s hard to carry heavy weight items while travelling. So each form of tourism has its value,” he added.

While they may spend less per person, local tourists are greater in number and as this year’s earnings show, have been a more reliable source of income for the sector.

Meanwhile, the Egyptian Tourist Association is working to recover Egypt’s image and bring visitors back.

Numbers of overseas visitors dropped from 14.5 million in 2010 to 9.8 million in 2011 and earnings fell from two billion U.S. dollars to 1.5.

In early October, Tourism Minister Hisham Zaazou said he was targeting 11-12 million tourists this year. Zaazou said in the first nine months the country saw 8.8 million visitors.

The first bus made it along the newly built tarmac road in 1985 and the first guide books covered Siwa in 1987. Hweiti founded the tourism office in Siwa in 1996, but he worries about the effect of tourism on the local community.

“The threat when lots of tourists come here is that people here will leave their work in the fields and gardens and nobody will do manual work, everybody will turn to work in safaris, restaurants and handicrafts,” Hweiti said.

“They’ll be tempted by the money. This is a serious threat,” he expressed.

But with a drop-off of 90 percent in visitor numbers since the uprising, according to Hweiti, there is no immediate danger of this.

Agriculture is still the mainstay of the local economy with tourism making up some 20 percent of income, he estimated.

The area around Siwa offers excursions of several hours up to several weeks and the group from Alexandria tried out sand boarding before washing off the sand in first a hot spring, then a cold natural spring set in the middle of desert.

For group organizer Islam Saad from Alexandria, Siwa was a refreshing break from cosmopolitan life and a reminder of a simpler time.

“I came to Siwa because it’s an amazing place and it’s where I have the most fun. It’s a really simple place with lots of lakes and oases,” he said.

“I’m having fun with my friends and we’re spending four days here. We see the simplicity of the houses and how Siwans live. It’s a really nice place and I recommend everybody to come here,” Saad added.

Saad organizes trips like this two or three times a year and he is not alone.

Many Egyptians with disposable income travel and because of the cost of flights and the difficulties in getting visas for foreign travel, domestic trips to places like Siwa are popular.


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