Egypt counts tourist trade a war casualty

Fallout: With the attack on Iraq, life became harder for people whose livelihoods depend on visitors to the pyramids.

War In Iraq

March 31, 2003|By Peter Hermann | Peter Hermann,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

GIZA PLATEAU, Egypt - The rambunctious schoolchildren were climbing over the ancient stones strewn in front of the Great Pyramids when Ahmed el-Sisi suddenly reared his horse in anger.

"Foreigners are better than Egyptians," the 21-year-old tour guide yelled at the pack from atop his mount. Several local youths threw fistfuls of dirt at the horse - named Sham el-Asila, or "original son" - as it galloped away, kicking up a blinding swirl of dust.

It has been a frustrating two weeks for the throngs of aggressive horse and camel hustlers who rely on tourists anxious for or suckered into a carnival-like desert ride around one of the world's oldest attractions.

Visitors stopped coming here when the first American bombs fell on Baghdad in the opening salvo of the war in Iraq. Groups of schoolchildren help fill the physical void, but they don't spend much money.

El-Sisi summed up the problem in two words: "No Americans."

Though young, el-Sisi is a stalwart veteran who began working at the pyramids when he was just 6 years old, helping lure tourists for his father's horse rides. Now the business is his, and he cannot recall a more destitute time.

"When the war is over, they will come back," he said. "The war is far away from here. Egypt is safe - it's the definition of security and civilization."

Egypt's economy depends on tourism, and the war is viewed here as a particularly hard blow. The country struggled to rebound after a significant drop-off in visitors after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks in New York and Washington.

The pleasant days of March and April are typically boom times here, a respite between the short rainy reason and the oppressive heat that marks the long summer. Yet hotels in Cairo are less than half full, and it's even worse in outlying resort areas such as Luxor. Egypt Air and Air Sinai have canceled many domestic flights.

The White House has pledged $2.3 billion in aid to Egypt - about half of what leaders here wanted - as part of an aid package to help its Middle East allies survive what appears will be an unexpectedly long and deadly war.

Though anti-war and anti-U.S. sentiment is at a fevered pitch on Egyptian streets, the government has worked hard to curb protests by limiting the rhetoric and ensuring demonstrations are brief and relatively peaceful.

Still, the people involved in Egypt's tourist industry say the only way to save it is a quick end to the war. "It's a disaster," said Mansour Boraik, the chief inspector of the pyramids, who is responsible for arranging tours and archaeological digs.

Outside his office, the sandy lot that usually is a jumble of tour buses and taxicabs was empty. There was no line to get inside. On a normal day, the 300 tickets allotted for people to explore the insides of the pyramids sell out in an hour. This day, there were plenty left by midafternoon.

Still, Boraik related a slightly better situation than did the horse and camel drivers. Last week, he said, 400 Americans visited as part of an archaeological group, and three dozen more were expected this week. And some German and Japanese tourists seem undaunted by the fighting two countries away.

Boraik said he is determined to keep the site open. It closed for a week during the gulf war in 1991. Now, Boraik said, people may hate the war and the U.S. leaders who are waging it, but they still like and depend on the American people for their livelihoods. "It's sad to see the pyramids without tourists," he said.

The dearth of visitors has made the trinket hawkers and camel drivers desperate. Even under normal times, they are regarded as relentless, even antagonizing, and camel-mounted tourist police have sometimes resorted to force to keep them from hounding visitors who complain they ruin the scene's majestic tranquillity.

But last week, the sellers were even worse than usual as they fought over the precious few customers walking what turned out to be a harried gauntlet of persistent hawkers who refused to take even a stern no for an answer.

"I have too many children," pitched Rayes Ragab, 45, who has been guiding tourists for three decades. "You have no idea how much my wife eats, how much my kids eat."

Ragab said that this week he has earned no more than 30 Egyptian pounds a day, less than $5, about a third of what he usually makes and barely enough to feed and clothe his seven children. "Everyone is feeling the pain."

Sitting next to him on a camel named Moses was Mohammed Mahmoud. At 16, he is already a veteran of the business with a decade of experience. "I can't make a profit," he complained.

Like virtually all of the workers interviewed here, Mahmoud expressed disgust at the war but was careful to distance his anger at American leaders from American citizens. "Bush bad," he said in broken English, quickly adding with a smile, "Americans good."

His family owns three camels, but only Moses has a name befitting the region. Mahmoud said the other two were more popular with tourists - Pepsi Cola and Mickey Mouse.

But with the U.S. waging a war against another Arab state, Mahmoud said, it is no longer appropriate to name the animals after American icons or commercial products. Even when tourists return here, a payback for war might mean they never again ride off into a desert sunset on a camel named Mickey Mouse.

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