It’s hard to understate how crucial tourism is to Egypt.
In 2010, Egypt attracted 14.7 million visitors, the tourism industry employed about 12 percent of the country’s workforce and made up 10 percent of its GDP.
Instability, political change, and terror attacks in the years after the 2011 Arab Spring revolution have wreaked havoc on the tourism industry in Egypt, and, in turn, the economy at large.
In 2011, the year of the revolution, the number of visitors dropped to 10 million. By 2014, revenue for Egypt’s top tourist sites had dropped 95 percent from 2011, numbers so low the government speculated it might not be able to keep the sites open.
Though tourism started to bounce back last year, most Egyptians remain in dire financial situations. Last year, UNICEF announced that Egypt’s poverty rate had hit an all-time high, nearing 30 percent.
With few jobs to replace those lost by tourism, many Egyptians have had to get creative. I witnessed this first-hand on a Coral Sea Resorts cruise up the Nile River in Upper Egypt last month.
As much of the cruise ship crowd – a mix of Americans and Europeans, with a Chinese and a German tour group thrown in – enjoyed the cool Nile breeze on the deck, I heard voices shouting, “Scarf! Towel! Good prices!” I was confused for a moment, until I saw a group of the tourists looking over the side of the ship.
When I looked over myself, I saw what was going on. A few enterprising Egyptians had ridden up to us on motorboats and had hooked ropes onto the side of our ship so that they could keep pace. Once connected, they were trying to sell souvenirs to the tourists two stories above them.
Here’s what it looked like from the window of the dining room below deck:
It was both an absurd and somewhat ingenious ploy. Like being attacked by a gang of pirates who only want to bargain with you.
Throughout the day, different souvenir salesmen would lash their boat to the cruise ship and try to coax one of the tourists into buying a t-shirt or a towel. When they had traveled with us for a few miles or when they tired of trying, they detached. A little ways up the river, a new boat of salesmen would arrive.
The boat salesmen were just a more unusual version of the hassling that happens throughout the Egypt tourist route. Just about anywhere a tourist is likely to be in Egypt, someone is selling a scroll of papyrus or a pyramid rock carving or a pharoah head. Who could blame them? There are few jobs and many mouths to feed. Even with the tourism industry a shadow of what it once was, tourists are still the easiest route to a livelihood.
At the temples, the hassling is exhausting. On the cruise, no one seemed to mind. The novelty of bargaining with someone in a boat 20 feet below never lost its novelty. The humor was not lost on the salesmen. They seemed to acknowledge that what they were doing was funny.
The boat salesmen’s method for completing the deals was equally clever. First, they would show off their wares. If no one looking over the railing indicated what he or she wanted, the salesmen would simply throw a scarf or a towel up to the deck. If someone decided that he or she wanted the item, they would negotiate on the price. Yelling, of course. When the deal was set, the salesman would throw up another item, which the buyer would then stuff the money into and throw back down.
With the Egyptian pound trading with the dollar at 17 to 1, those in the tourism industry and the government have been optimistic the industry is back on the upswing.
But after a terror attack in Giza killed four tourists days after I left, the old questions about security and stability were back in the news.