The Academy Award-winning film ``The English Patient'' has sparked tourism, and focused attention on the country's brief history under British rule.


March 30, 1997|By William Arnold | William Arnold,New York Daily News Pub Date: 3/30/97 SEATTLE POST-INTELLIGENCER

As this year's best picture Oscar winner, "The English Patient" is fulfilling a long-standing tradition: It has inspired a boom of tourism for its romantic setting.

Ever since the 1935 winner, "Mutiny on the Bounty," turned Tahiti into a major tourist destination in the '30s, best-picture winners -- which tend to be big historical epics set in exotic places -- have had a remarkable way of sending legions of movie-influenced travelers on pilgrimages.

The 1958 winner, "Bridge on the River Kwai," for instance, overnight turned the River Kwai-Kanchanaburi prison-camp site into Thailand's third largest tourist draw, and 40 years later it still is, with a sound and light show simulating the effects for visitors. Similarly, the 1962 winner, "Lawrence of Arabia" is credited with single-handedly creating Jordan's tourist industry.

More recently, the 1981 winner, "Gandhi," did wonders for India's tourism; the 1985 winner, "Out of Africa," transformed Isak Dinesen's former estate into Nairobi's single most popular attraction; and the 1993 winner, "Schindler's List," has drawn hundreds of thousands to Poland's former concentration camps. The Polish government even sponsors a "Schindler's Poland" tour.)

"The English Patient" is doing the same for Egypt, even though the lush, sensuous scenes of the Egyptian desert were not filmed in Egypt at all, but in Tunisia. (Historically, this incongruity doesn't seem to have much effect on the phenomenon: "Kwai" was filmed in Ceylon, "Bounty" off Catalina Island.)

But what makes this case even more unusual is that the movie is creating tourist interest not so much in Egypt's famous archaeological attractions (even though the hero is an archaeologist), as in that specific period of history that has been so long downplayed by the country's tourist authority: the 70 or so years before 1952 that Egypt spent as part of the British Empire.

'Really quite amazing'

As one Egyptian government tour guide told me: "It's really quite amazing. Since the movie came out, I've had a hundred foreign tourists ask me to show them Shepheard's Hotel or the old British section of Cairo or the location of the Cave of Swimmers. I don't even know where those places are. We're totally unprepared for this."

If this sudden interest in the once-forbidden subject of British Egypt is making the government of Hosni Mubarak vaguely uncomfortable, no one in it is complaining. Since Islamic fundamentalists declared war on foreign tourists in 1992, Egypt's most vital industry (and greatest source of foreign exchange) had been on life support. But the tourist industry made a spectacular comeback in 1996, with a record 3.8 million visitors, and the tourist numbers keep rising. The office of Tourism Minister Mamduh Beltagui grudgingly concedes "The English Patient" has "probably played a part" in this success.

But what is left of that once-scorned colonial world? Certainly not Shepheard's Hotel, the legendary hostelry that was the social center of British Egypt from the day Samuel Shepheard founded in 1841. It is long gone -- destroyed in an anti-British riot in 1952.

What stands for Shepheard's in Cairo today is a gigantic, five-star hotel with the same name built in 1957 a few miles west on the east bank of the Nile. What stood for the hotel in the movie was partly Venice's Hotel des Bains and mostly a large set at the Cinecitta Studio in Rome, designed from pictures of the old Shepheard's and interiors inspired by another famous Cairo hotel, the Windsor.

The Windsor Hotel was also badly damaged in the riots of 1952, but it survives reasonably intact two blocks from the original site of Shepheard's. Before it was a hotel, it served as the British Officer's Club, and thus was the real-life setting for one of the most famous scenes in moviedom -- T. E. Lawrence's triumphant return to Cairo after the taking of Aqaba in "Lawrence of Arabia."

Today, the Windsor is run-down and caters mostly to backpackers, but it's loaded with seedy Victorian atmosphere. Michael Palin stayed there when filming the Egypt episode of his "Around the World in 80 Days" series, and numerous framed stills in the lobby attest to the many times the place has been used as a movie location. The desk clerk assured me "English Patient" author Michael Ondaatje stayed there when researching his novel.

The British period also survives in the thousands of art-deco apartment buildings sprinkled throughout the city; in the stately old Mena House Hotel just a stone's throw from the Giza Pyramids; in the former British military headquarters at the tip of Gezira Island; and in the splendidly Gothic (circa 1900) Egyptian Museum, where the high ceilings, gloomy hallways and Victorian display cases look like a set from "The Mummy."

Luxuries at Luxor

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