Al-Ahram Weekly Online   9 - 15 June 2005
Issue No. 746
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Yunan Labib Rizk

Al-Ahram: A Diwan of contemporary life (600)

Selling Egypt

The global recession and political strife at home brought Egypt's tourist industry to a standstill in 1935. However, as Professor Yunan Labib Rizk discovered, a sharp publicity campaign turned things around

Click to view caption
The lobby of Shepheard's Hotel in the 1920s

Of all industries, tourism must be the most acutely sensitive to political, social and economic changes, both at home and abroad. In countries in which tourism forms a major component of the economy, fluctuations in the tourist industry reverberate through the entire economy, to which the Egyptian experience has frequently testified.

Under the headline, "Tourists turn away from Egypt", Al-Ahram of 18 January 1935 expresses its dismay at the current trend. "The recession in tourism in recent seasons has grown steadily worse, in spite of the fact that this year should have shown an improvement over previous years due to the fall in the exchange rate of the pound. One would have thought that this would have encouraged tourists from countries other than Britain and the US to at least choose Egypt as their winter holiday destination because it is now more affordable than ever to bask in the rays of its clement sun."

The newspaper attributed the problem in part to a major change in tourist habits. Gone was that era in which the average tourist would "spend three weeks in Cairo, during which he would leisurely make his way to the Pyramids, the Citadel or the Moski area, while away his idle moments in his balcony in one of our major hotels, then head by train down to Luxor where, wide-brimmed hat on his head as protection from the sun, he would pick his way through the monuments of Karnak and the Valley of the Kings, and then, two weeks later, wend his way homeward."

The new era was all speed plus complete freedom of movement. Apparently, the new generation of tourists preferred to bring their own cars with them, which was facilitated by an agreement the International Rotary Club struck with various governments whereby private automobiles would be allowed into these countries for tourist purposes without payment of customs fees. But even when tourists came without a car, they generally rented one, "which they drive themselves so as to be totally at liberty to go anywhere whenever they please."

Given the importance of automobiles to tourism, Al-Ahram suspected that a major reason why tourists were not coming to Egypt was the poor condition of the roads. Having observed the automotive trend in tourism early on, advanced nations had long since devoted considerable resources to upgrading their roads, which is why "in France, Germany and Britain, today, you see a dense network of finely paved roads all in excellent condition." That was clearly not the case in Egypt, whose thoroughfares had fallen into neglect.

Of course the drop in tourism was more complicated than the foregoing Al-Ahram article suggests. Foremost among the various and interrelated causes was the global depression, which affected Egypt directly and indirectly through the masses of tourists that might have chosen Egypt as their holiday destination. Tourism, of course, is one of the luxuries that are the first to go in times of economic crisis. As indicated in the article, the crisis had begun several years earlier -- with the stock market crash in 1929, to be precise -- and lasted several years, although by 1935, the global economy was on the upswing again.

The same period was also one of sharp domestic political discord, the most salient characteristic of what has become known as the Sidqi era. Upon assuming power in 1940, Prime Minister Ismail Sidqi abrogated the 1923 constitution and introduced one tailored to enhance the autocratic powers of the palace. If the first half of this era brought harsh government clampdowns on the political parties and newspapers that opposed the Sidqi government, the second half brought growing frustration over the Tawfiq El-Nassim government's foot-dragging over the restoration of the 1923 constitution. The mounting tension erupted in the student demonstrations that swept the country in 1935. Naturally, tourists tend to think twice before setting off to a holiday in a country in the grips of popular unrest.

In an interview with a British periodical, Behler, the managing director of the Egyptian Hotel Company, added another cause for the recession in the Egyptian tourist industry. The Egyptian government, he said, simply did not give tourism sufficient attention, unlike other countries which spend thousands of pounds developing the infrastructure of this industry and promoting it abroad.

Al-Ahram editor and staff writer Abdallah Hussein was of the same opinion, as can be seen in his article, "Publicity for Egypt at home and abroad: how to stimulate tourism." Hussein relates that a foreign tourist told him that in countries abroad, every major city produces guidebooks to acquaint tourists with the historic monuments and modern attractions they have to offer. Not so Egypt, "where guidebooks only mean antiquities and never the scenes of nature and contemporary Egyptian life. It is wrong to presume that every tourist comes to Egypt only to see antiquities."

In an accompanying commentary, Al-Ahram admitted that there was a severe shortage in publicity for Egypt in preparing environments in which foreigners could acquaint themselves with various aspects of Egyptian life. The Royal Railway Authority's efforts to establish moderately priced hotels that exuded a welcoming and inspiring Egyptian climate were also lacking. "The Sudanese Railway Authority has built excellent hotels of this sort in Sudan's most important cities in spite of that authority's difficult financial straits," the newspaper added by way of driving its point home.

Those engaged in the tourist industry as well as the members of the press realised that whatever the causes, something had to be done to halt the slump. Al-Ahram, like other newspapers in the country, kept close track of the developments.

At the official level, the government established a tourism bureau, a step heartily welcomed by Al-Ahram. "This bureau should efface the taint of negligence and inactivity," Al- Ahram remarked, adding, "One would have hoped that this step could have compensated for all the opportunities we have missed in this highly competitive field, which is growing ever more competitive with every advancement in transport and propaganda."

In view of the importance of the new government body, Al- Ahram dispatched one of its reporters to interview its director, Ahmed Sadiq Bek. True to the tradition of government officials on such occasions, Sadiq was highly confident and reassuring. The government, he said, had realised that in many European countries tourism had become a primary source of national wealth, which is why they vied with one another to attract the greatest possible number of tourists. His bureau, he added, should be able to draw on the successful promotional expertise of countries such as Italy, Switzerland, Palestine and Morocco. He also believed that his bureau had an important role to play in enhancing the efficacy of the tourist industry at home by helping to coordinate the activities of the various agencies involved in the business and steering them to a single goal, "which is to attract the largest possible number of tourists and to create an appropriate environment for their stay in Egypt."

Another important initiative was undertaken by the business community involved in tourism. A month after the creation of the Tourism Bureau, a collection of shipping, hotel and tourist train companies founded the Association for the Promotion of Tourism, whose main declared purpose was to mount a publicity campaign to attract tourists to Egypt. At first glance it seemed that there was a needless overlap between the association and the bureau which had to be resolved. In the opinion of Al-Ahram, the bureau's task, like that of similar government agencies around the world, should be to promote tourism in Egypt through various media and to supervise or coordinate everything involved in facilitating tourism inside the country, from transportation networks and hotel facilities to the bureaucracy affecting tourism. As important as this role was, however, that was not sufficient. Egypt not only wanted tourists to come to the country, see the antiquities and go home when they've seen enough; it wanted them to keep coming back, and for other reasons.

This was where the other organisation came in. The Association for the Promotion of Tourism, in the newspaper's opinion, could supplement the activities of the Tourism Bureau by organising various events, such as concerts and sporting events. "The national equestrian competitions and the Arabic musical festivals are very popular with foreigners. They would also be attracted by desert excursions that would take them to the monasteries of Wadi Al-Natrun, Tor Sinai and others, all the more so as this would afford them the opportunity to behold the breathtaking desert scenery which they could never experience in their own countries."

In contemplating the other activities the association might sponsor, the newspaper let its imagination run wild. It suggested for example, that the association found a club for tourists, complete with tennis courts, stables, swimming pool and golf course. "The secretariat of this club would furnish all the necessary information requested by tourists from various scientific and academic organisations and the like, thereby enabling visiting physicians to meet other physicians or architects to meet fellow architects while on holiday. Such a facility would ensure that tourists, especially the professionals among them, would never feel bored for a moment throughout their stay."

With the establishment of these two organisations in the summer of 1935, it seemed that all Egypt had to do was to wait for the approaching tourist boom the winter season would bring. The high hopes were met with great disappointment, a sentiment that Al-Ahram reflected on several occasions.

The tourist season is around the corner, yet so far there is no sign of the anticipated activity, Al-Ahram observed on 22 October 1935 under the headline, "The tourist season and commercial activity in Luxor". It continues, "There have been many rumours to the effect that the tourist season will begin late this year. As though to confirm these rumours, the Hotel Company in Luxor has yet to announce its opening date. Also, merchants specialising in tourist wares have not opened their stores yet, which bodes ill for trade and commerce in this city this year."

More distressful news appeared on 6 November: "The American passenger ship, the Empress of Britain, which is taking 1,000 tourists on a world cruise, has struck Egypt off its itinerary."

The article went on to state that the signs were that "this year we will have one of the worst tourist seasons ever if we have a tourist season at all." The cause, in Al-Ahram 's opinion: poor publicity due to lack of sufficient funding. The minister of finance had refused to approve the necessary allocations to the Tourist Bureau. The writer hoped that the refusal was not final, especially given what he euphemistically referred to as "the ominous situation". He was referring to the student demonstrations, as a result of which "hotels in Cairo, Luxor and Aswan have kept their doors closed due to the disturbances and the halt in transportation systems."

Four days later, the same writer responded to the persistent demands on the part of some readers to know what the government was doing to counter the recession in tourism. His answer came in the form of a terse headline: "Staff of the government's Tourism Bureau are twiddling their thumbs." In the article itself he relates that the government had allocated LE3,000 to the bureau. The director's salary accounted for over half this sum. Then there were the costs of renting and furnishing the premises, and the salaries of the rest of the staff. "The simple process of adding together all these expenditures, salaries and rents reveals that nothing is left to fund the activities for which purpose the bureau was established."

He goes on to explain that the bureau had initially been established under the Ministry of Finance, which had allocated the above-mentioned sum. Soon afterwards, however, it was transferred to the Ministry of Trade and Industry which could not come up with the necessary funding for the bureau's promotional activities. As a result, the bureau was semi-idle, or as he put it, "its doors opened every morning like other government departments and closed in the afternoons like other government departments. Between opening and closing times it tends to a matter or two."

Evidently, the heat of public pressure stirred Sadiq Bek into action. He introduced a package of measures, to be implemented by the Ministry of Interior, intended to cut down the red tape involved in issuing tourist visas. He arranged for police patrols to keep beggars and "undesirables" away from hotels, museums, monuments and other tourist sites. In addition, he took advantage of the approaching Christmas season to send greeting cards to various organisations and societies in Europe and the US, along with brochures and other material intended to lure tourists to Egypt and simultaneously qualm apprehension over the security situation.

Unfortunately, such actions proved too late to salvage the 1935-1936 tourist season. However, it appears that the authorities and others involved in the tourist industry had learned their lesson for they got to work in earnest for the following season. By now, too, the need to turn around the sluggish tourist industry had become a major public opinion topic, and Al-Ahram as was its custom opened its pages to the contributions of its readers.

One of them, Latif Rizqallah, outlined a comprehensive programme for reviving tourism. The main component of his proposal was a massive publicity campaign in foreign newspapers and periodicals. The advertisements profiling Egypt's various attractions had to be eye-catching and of the highest possible quality. It was therefore essential to engage highly qualified publicity experts to design them. The publicity material also had to be attractively packaged and envelopes containing it should feature a slogan such as "spend the winter in Egypt", or something equally concise and memorable. In addition to the printed publicity, tourist authorities should also produce several short documentaries on life in Egypt and arrange to have these screened in cinemas abroad.

At the level of helping tourists while in the country, Rizqallah recommended that the government sponsor the publication of guidebooks and other informative pamphlets. These, he said, should be translated into various foreign languages and distributed to tourists free of charge. As further enticement the Railway Authority should offer reduced fares for tourists. Finally, in order to keep tourists in the country as long as possible, tourist agencies should design programmes that offered a diversity of interesting and entertaining activities.

Another reader, Abbas Mahgoub, contributed more suggestions. Publicity, he said, should not just be restricted to the media. Egyptian consulates, tourist companies and major hotels around the world should be supplied with thousands of copies of brochures describing the sites and accommodation facilities in Egypt. "These should be printed in the major languages in an attractive format so as to inspire anyone who picked them up and leafed through them to come to Egypt." Mahgoub also believed that a company should be created to organise different types of coach tours in and around Cairo. These should be regularly scheduled so on Mondays, for example, there would be a tour of mosques, on Tuesdays a tour of museums, Wednesdays a coach tour to the pyramids, Thursdays an excursion to the Fayoum, and so on.

A third contributor was not a reader but rather Al-Ahram 's own Ahmed El-Sawi Mohamed, who opened his article by quoting the French writer, Paul Marin, who famously expressed his love for travel with the plea: "When I die, turn my skin into a suitcase!" However, El-Sawi argues, most tourists have certain limits. "Imagine your average European tourist, who knows little of our ancient civilisation and our modern awakening, arriving in our country. What does he see? Armies of beggars, vagrants, diseased and barefooted merchants; hordes of snake charmers, syringe sellers ("200 needles for a piastre and a half!"), salted fish peddlers, hawkers of curtain rods, sheatfish, assorted fabrics, beads and chickpeas; 500 shoe shiners, 1,000 men spitting and blowing their noses into the streets, 700 cigarette butt collectors scurrying like mice beneath the tables and around the legs of customers in coffeehouses; 1,500 lottery ticket sellers. All these swarm by the tourist within the first two hours of his visit and press upon him their wares and pleas every day he is here. What, one wonders, will his impression of us be?" Having presented this portrait of teaming poverty, El-Sawi pleads with officials to show a bit of sensitivity, foresight, generosity and tolerance towards all concerned, "for this is all part of the art of tourism."

If the government was sobered by its disappointment at the 1935-36 tourist season and now determined to act, it helped considerably that the end of 1936 brought the restoration of the 1923 constitution, a new cabinet headed by Wafd Party leader Mustafa El-Nahhas and an end to the student demonstrations. The government's new resolve to boost tourism manifested itself in concrete terms: a 10-fold increase in the allocation to the Tourism Bureau. Not that LE50,000 -- a weighty sum for the time -- did not stir consternation in parliament. One MP objected, "Egyptian antiquities are famous the world over and do not need publicity!"

In an attempt to counter such objections, Tourism Bureau director Ahmed Sadiq submitted a lengthy article to Al-Ahram entitled "Tourism: preparing for it through reform at home and publicity abroad." The increase of his office's budget was very reasonable considering advertising costs abroad, he wrote. "A three-quarter page advertisement in L'Illustration costs LE175 and a full page in the Chicago Tribune costs $720 or LE150 [the Egyptian pound was worth almost $5 at the time]. It is also important to bear in mind that our publicity must reach all milieus for tourism is no longer the preserve of the wealthy as it once was."

But publicity was not the only expense entailed. The government had to dedicate considerably more funds to road maintenance and construction, "for the more roads we have and the better their condition, the greater will be the volume of traffic between one area and the next." Special attention also had to be accorded to the cities that were the prime destinations on the tourist agenda. Sadiq was grieved by the condition of some of these cities: "Visitors to Luxor, Aswan or Helwan can only be astounded by the neglect to which these cities have fallen, to the extent that they have virtually been reduced to rubbish dumps."

Sadiq also proved to be a man of vision. Over 70 years ago he urged taking advantage of Egypt's Mediterranean resorts and developing them to accommodate foreign tourists. "Many Europeans who are unable to leave their countries in winter could come to Egypt in the summer to spend their holidays in these beaches. The climate of Egypt's Mediterranean coast is much more clement than the Riviera. If the government launched the required publicity drive targeting the right segments of the societies abroad we would see waves of tourists pouring into our country in the summer from all countries near and far."

It was not long before Sadiq could produce tangible evidence of his bureau's efforts. France's Le Grand Tourisme came out with a special entirely on Egypt with special focus on tourism sites and facilities. Elegantly designed and filled with beautiful photographs, "this edition came out in 50,000 copies that were distributed to the magazine's regular subscribers, as well as to tourist organisations and agencies in various world capitals." In addition, the London Times came out with a 44-page supplement on winter tourism, of which a half-page was on Egypt.

These efforts also bore immediate fruit. The 1936-37 tourist season came as a welcome breath of fresh air after all those long years of recession. Writing from Luxor at the outset of that winter an Al-Ahram correspondent reports, "A huge group of German tourists arrived on board a train especially hired for them. They split up into smaller groups to visit the monuments of Karnak and Thebes, after which they headed into the souq to look at different types of handicraft." From Alexandria, there came the news that the American cruise ship "Milwaukee", carrying 350 tourists, had just anchored at port. Two trains had been set aside for them specially to take them to Cairo. At the same time, the Mont Rose, carrying an equally large number of tourists, had just arrived in Egypt's second largest city. Soon afterwards, Al-Ahram announced that two more ships had arrived in Port Said: the "Atlanta", "carrying a huge group of tourists", and the "Andrew Star", "arriving from Palestine with 300 British tourists on board."

Another Al-Ahram article quoted a tourist official in Alexandria boasting that that year's season was "successful". He was delighted by the large influx of tourists of "respectable classes", who were "keen to enjoy their visits to selected sites, the spectacle of Egypt's antiquities and this country's moderate climate." He added, "The government was wise to have taken modern measures to attract tourists to Egypt, for these measures brought excellent results."

Inspired by this success Minister of Trade and Industry Abdel-Salam Fahmi Gomaa decided to create a tourism council. Headed by himself and made up of "senior technicians in the ministry and businessmen with expertise in tourist affairs," the new council would assume most of the functions of the Tourism Bureau. Moreover, the Tourism Council would eventually evolve into an independent ministry, albeit after some time.

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