Egypt’s Beach Tourism: an insider’s perspective

Sharm-El-Sheikh

Our Egyptian correspondant Susan Richards-Benson examines the shift in the tourism industry as the Arab Spring changes the paradigm in an Egypt desperate to recover its former economical status

The Egyptian Revolution of 2011 greatly impacted many economic sectors in the country, with the tourism industry arguably being the hardest hit. Beach towns that in previous years overflowed with tourists were sparsely populated with lonely vendors struggling to sell their wares to any passer-by. In Sharm el-Sheikh, a well-known hot-spot for foreign beach tourists, cafes sat empty and the streets lay dead. In Cairo, which saw the brunt of the violent clashes during the uprising, the great pyramids played host to only a handful of visitors in a week, a stark contrast to the throngs of people that used to visit daily.

When President Morsi was elected just over three weeks ago, naturally the Egyptians whose livelihood depends on a rejuvenation of the tourism sector were eager to hear how he intended to address the issue and help Egypt’s tourism thrive once more. Claims arose that his Islamist dominated leadership would negatively impact beach tourism, which modest estimates claim make up over 80% of Egypt’s overall revenue from tourism. This combined with fundamentalist Salafi calls to ban the sale of alcohol and outlaw bikinis did little to assuage these fears.

During his campaign for election as president, Mr. Morsi never set out a clear stance on how he intended to promote Egyptian tourism. His speeches became riddled with ambiguous references to preserving the significance of the industry, and hailing the importance of Egyptian antiquities and cultural heritage. On July 18, a popular Egyptian daily publication, the Egypt Independent featured an interview with travel agency manager Mariam al-Attar. She had this to say about President Morsi’s stance, “Nothing has been cleared up about the state’s future approach to assure that no radical changes [to the tourism sector] would be implemented.” With this in mind, what has been the real impact of all of this in the beach towns that generate the majority of the revenue?

“Hurghada has been witnessing slow growth in the tourism sector, but the majority of the profits went to the all-inclusive hotels. Guests are less likely to leave the compounds of their resort hotels for fear of unrest or instability in the streets. “

Hurghada is a popular tourist destination located on the Red Sea. It’s location provides supreme beaches, while the coral reefs running down the coastline are favourites with divers  as more than a few of the top ten dive spots in the world are located in the Red Sea itself.   In the summer season of 2011, Hurghada was struggling to survive the impact of the Revolution. Tourism companies were struggling and seeing only a fraction of the revenue they had seen in years past. Everyone was waiting for the economic revival. Since the beginning of 2012, Hurghada has been witnessing slow growth in the tourism sector, but the majority of the profits went to the all-inclusive hotels. Guests are less likely to leave the compounds of their resort hotels for fear of unrest or instability in the streets. This has had a resounding impact on the overall demographics of Hurghada’s hot-spots.

Famous amongst Caireans for its party lifestyle, Hurghada’s clubs and beaches often played host to scantily clad men and women.  Alcohol flowed freely, and life often mirrored the party scene of some of the Mediterranean’s top party destinations. Ladies wearing a traditional veil or headscarf were barely ever seen in the main tourist haunts. In fact, many establishments that served alcohol barred entrance to women wearing a hijab to protect their moral integrity. Since the Egyptian Revolution however, and more so since the election of President Morsi, this has all changed.

Nowadays it is becoming commonplace to walk into a private pool club or beach and see women in their Burkinis and veils. Management are being forced more and more often to request women in their Islamic swim wear to get out of the private pools, and direct them towards the beach. Even more surprising, walking into many of the night clubs in and around Hurghada you will spot women in their veils. This is astounding as in traditional Islamic belief, such women are forbidden from being in an establishment that serves alcohol and promotes lewd behaviour. In places that previously barred entrance to veiled ladies, what has caused this sudden shift?

“The result is that many tourists simply choose to spend their holidays inside their all-inclusive resort hotels where they do not have to deal with the growing Islamist tendencies in Hurghada.”

The answer is simple; when the Revolution crippled foreign tourism and eliminated the previously unspoken about borders between certain governorates, Egyptians flocked to the beach resorts. Combine this with the election of an Islamist leadership, and it’s easy to understand how the conservative dress is spreading in the region. With Hurghada’s summer season in full swing you can witness the power struggle first hand between the women wearing a veil who demand a greater sense of freedom and respect, and the establishments struggling to cater to a once-again growing foreigner customer base. The result is that many tourists simply choose to spend their holidays inside their all-inclusive resort hotels where they do not have to deal with the growing Islamist tendencies in Hurghada.

Another popular beach resort Sharm el-Sheikh was perhaps even harder hit than Hurghada in the post-revolution period. Increasing incidents of kidnappings of foreign nationals in the Sinai region is doing little to promote Sharm’s tourist appeal. Barbara* was a former resident of Sharm who recently re-visited the area to see some old friends. When asked about her experiences and her overall impression, she sadly replied that “I won’t be going back to Sharm anytime soon.”

“Sharm is now over-flowing with men in the streets that two years ago would have never been allowed into the city. They presumably are coming from inside the Sinai itself or from Upper Egypt, I cannot tell for sure. The impact is, as a foreigner I experienced far higher levels of harassment and sexual obscenities in the streets than I had ever previously witnessed. I was even groped by a stranger on the street walking home one night. When I confronted him about it, he shrugged me away as though nothing had happened. I was with family and friends from the UK, and had to continuously repeat to them ‘this is not the real Egypt. This is not what people here are usually like,” Barbara explains.

Unsurprisingly, the security vacuum in the Sinai Peninsula has filtered into Sharm el-Sheikh resulting in a greater sense of lawlessness in the governorate when compared to other areas of Egypt. Sadly the impact that this is having on Sharm’s tourism is extremely negative, with many visitors claiming they will not be returning.

President Morsi has a big job in front of him. He has to be able to create a balance between the Islamist forces in the government, while realising the importance that beach tourism has to Egypt’s fragile economy. Alienating tourists in the region, or causing them to feel that their own personal safety is at risk, is an issue that needs to be addressed immediately. Until this balance is struck, those living in Egypt’s beach side resort towns will continue to wait with bated breath to see how their towns can once again become beacons for tourists from around the world.

*Name changed for privacy reasons.

“I am happy when I get up in the morning” (part 2)

Nico Prat with Yours Truly. (c) Celeste Rhoads

In the first part of our interview with radio journalist Nico Prat, we talked about his book, Les Miscellannées d’Internet. In this second part, he tells us why he cherishes his job, what made a difference in his life and what, at the dawn of his 27 th year, he expects from life.

Photos by Celeste Rhoads.

Tell me about the genesis of your first book.

I think I had written an article on VSD, on what I had called « humor 2.0 », in essence saying that jokes were no longer exchanged at the office’s watercooler, but by email, chainmail. I wanted to go a little further than this article, interviewing who was at the origin of that type of sense of humor, and what it meant for us as a society. At this time, I was working on a project with Antoine Dubuquoy. He’s 45, he’s been working in advertising for quite some time now, and I said listen, who could I possibly use for this idea ? He said he didn’t know, but that he was working on a book that would later be the one we released last year, and he said he’d love to do it with me. He had already written a blurb, that was very historical, and I added my own spin on it, which was more about the current aspect of the web, more about the humorous aspect of it, and that became the book.

Your very first book.

My real baby is GloryBox. But it’s my baby with Antoine.

So your real baby, your real projects, are on radio ?

Absolutely. GloryBox is my baby. This is the aspect of work that I cherish the most. I’m working on episode 22. We are very proud of it, with Mehdi Fattah, the show’s producer, because there is a real young electro and pop scene in France that has no inhibitions, that never plays by the rules, that doesn’t try to belong to any specific theme but would quote the Stooges as well as french singer Alain Souchon as main influences – I’m thinking about Aline, Superpoze, bands like those, Mr Nô for instance. I’m really proud that, for an hour, I can leave them the control on national airwaves. I’m still master of ceremony, I still have to take them into a direction and ask questions, but during this whole hour, we learn to discover them, we learn about their journey, we listen to a lot of very good music. The season will be over in three episodes, and looking back, Mehdi and I are super proud. Neither of us is the cause of what happened, but all those bands managed to be booked at important festivals, and they probably would have done it regardless of GloryBox, but we gave them the opportunity to tell who they are, with their own words.

Do you pick the artists you’re going to showcase or do they somehow find a way to reach you ?

We set up an email address, gloryboxrecrute@gmail.com, where bands can send us files and stories. We listen to everything. Some of it we don’t like. Some of it we kind of like, and it ends up in the « sampler » section of the show, and when I have a crush on a band, I select it to spend one hour with the band. If I don’t crush on it, if I’m forcing myself to deal with them, for whatever reason – that it could be good for the station, that it could be good for the show – I’m not going to have a good time, I’m not going to believe in it, and you’ll feel it as a listener. There are criterias, of course, and first and foremost, we have to deal with them before they release their first album.

And how did you manage to put Franz Is Dead on the air ? It already released an album.

Franz Is Dead released an EP. That was his second EP, he also released a mini album with only eight tracks, and it was a paralleled project, so the rules couldn’t apply. The other day we were on the air with O Safari, a band that has only released one track, this just one track. But we had such a massive fall-in-love moment with this track that we picked them for the show. We invited them from that three-minutes song called « Taxi ». With the artists we really manage to establish trust. We have a GloryBox night on Friday where O Safari and Superpoze will play live, there is a little family aspect to it.

And you’re working with artists that would not necessarily be highlighted otherwise, in press or media in general.

Not necessarily. If you look at the format, it’s one hour on national radio, during which we spin four of their tracks, where they have almost absolute control of the programmation, where a review takes place : I honestly do not believe we changed the lives of any artist we shed the spotlight on, they would have done it without us. But I like to believe that at the stage of their career, it couldn’t hurt. And if we managed to help a band through the show, I am particularly proud of it. If someone comes up to me and said, « I discovered said or said band through you », this is where I am at my happiest. We try to put as much fun as we can into the show.

(c) Celeste Rhoads

The little nod to Portishead, was it voluntarily decided, or just an after thought ?

It really wasn’t how the show was called initially. It was supposed to be called « Starter », which I really liked, but we had to ensure the name wasn’t already used by another radio show, so we had to submit every possible name we could think of : it was almost named « Pop, etc » , « At the beginning », etc. We submitted thirty names or so, and two of them were available, including Glory Box. Yes, there is a nod to Portishead. But this is what it means : a mini glory box that you open with a lot coming out of it.

Knowing your age  (Nico will be 27 in July), what is your next big step ? You released your first book before you turned 30 ; you have your own radio show on national airwaves before you turned 30. You will release your second book before hitting 30. What is left to do ?

Swim across the world. (laughs) Seriously, I have no idea. Continuing Glory Box, for sure. Sure, I have a few ideas, that I can’t tell you because they’re not supposed to get out. But I’m already feeling like I’m hallucinating right now. The past year has been amazing for me. Everything I love is in my work. I love getting up in the morning. There will be the second book, the second season of GloryBox that will operate under a few different changes, in september.

But you’re happy.

I’m happy. I’m the happiest. It feels really good. I remember the first time we did an interview together,  and when I look at the photos I feel like I was ten years old. I had shaved, I had my old glasses and I was wearing a close-fitted white tshirt. It’s not an easy job, it is really hard, so I’m really happy that so many people gave me a chance – Laura Lieschmann, Jean Zeid, Emilie Mazoyer,  that supported me, people I owe a lot. All I can hope for myself is to keep on making that kind of connection with people.

(c) Celeste Rhoads

How can someone that young find themselves on such an established radio station ? (Le Mouv’)

One thing with me is that I love the idea of public service, I love the idea of owing people something. I am paid with taxpayer’s money, and I think that’s a beautiful principle and applies pressure, forcing us into an ethos. When I was a kid, I lived in Rouen, and whenever we would go and see her on weekend, we would drive past the Radio City, and I could see the giant poster of key radio personalities and I was telling myself, « When I grow up, I’ll be one of them ». And why Le Mouv’, it’s because the people I met were working there, and that’s how I found myself there.

It’s funny, cause my sister is a journalist as well, a radio journalist, and she has the same attachment to the art – she refuses to do any press, any television, she’s really into radio.

I still do press, because that’s how I started and I like how it’s a completely different exercize. Being on the radio wasn’t in the plan. I have grown attached to it, but it wasn’t in the works. I just wanted to be a journalist. I find it crazy to be paid to give your opinion, and being paid to do GloryBox, it’s crazy to me, because no matter what, I would have still done something similar, I would have had a blog, I would have had it as a hobby, but what I love is now my job, and I feel incredibly lucky.

What has changed the most for you between now and back when I first interviewed you ? What is the thing that has made its mark upon you ?

My interview with Anton Newcombe remains the worst I’ve ever done. (laughs) Really, two things that I will always remember : the day I got my first book in my hands. I remember going to all bookstores to see the book display. I remember entering rooms to sign books and seeing piles and piles of my own book around. It’s very strange. And the second thing is when I became in charge of my very first show. I had been on radio before, I had little segments, little reviews, but I had never been in charge to cover the Eurockéennes festival. 2 hours live – already a hard exercize when it’s your job, but back then, I had little to no experience. They really took a chance on me and I had a lot of fun doing it. Those experiences marked who I am and made for fantastic memories. A lot of things happened from then on. My bosses played my bluff and I hope I never disappointed anyone.

Would you be ready to give back to the community and introduce young people to the art of radio now ? Do you feel experienced enough to be in their shoes ?

No, not at all. This is not my place. I am 26 years old. Who am I to give advice ? I don’t have enough experience as of yet to really help someone get through. The other day some guy showed up before the show and asked to see how things were getting done, so I let him into the studio. If someone asks me advice, sure I will answer, but I have no journey to speak of… it’s going well, for sure, but I’m no teacher, this is not my position. I’m still knocking on wood. Stop saying it’s exceptional, this is where everything will start falling into pieces (laughs).

So you don’t feel you’re « there » ? That you’ve arrived ?

No, I haven’t arrived anywhere. Maybe when I’m 75. I will never be « there ».

So you will never be Pascal Nègre ?

No. It’s funny you’re asking because you’re taking a guy like Philippe Manœuvre, who is still there, can you really reproach them for being still there ? Everyone’s staying the old generation’s gotta move, that they need to make room for the youth of today to have some space. Can we really reproach them for still having something to say ? When I’m 50, when I’m an old ass without anything left to say, will I have the intelligence to go away when I need to ? I can’t know that for sure. Of course you can say that Rock’n’Folk is close-minded, I do believe that Pascal Negre’s vision of the Internet is vomit-inducing, someone else saying « music is dead » made me believe I’m happy they’ve retired … but you can’t deny that those people had made something of their lives and have changed things, in a way. They may have made mistakes but they believed in them. I’m not sure I can say I would have done things any differently.