School of Oriental and African Studies
Branding Egypt Islamic; the (non-)latitude for new directions within tourism in post-revolutionary Egypt
Tourism is deeply ingrained in the Egyptian socio-economical landscape, accounting for ten percent of GDP and employing one in ten Egyptians. The tourism industry expanded massively under the dictatorship of Hosni Mubarak – a regime inclined to listen to international trends and demands more than to the citizens’ needs and desires. Today, 85 percent of the twelve million annual visitors come for the beaches along the Red Sea coasts. The second biggest group of visitors is heritage or cultural tourists, whose trips usually focus on Pharaonic and Ancient Egypt. Interestingly, despite the wealth of Islamic historic heritage and present-day religious practices, Islamic heritage has been largely ignored within Egypt’s booming tourism industry. However, the popular uprising in 2011 that toppled the old system has brought political parties with outspoken Islamic agendas to power, parties for whom the present form of beach tourism is morally problematic.
Since 2011, the future direction of tourism has been a topic of speculations and worries; how should Egypt market, promote and organize itself as a tourist destination in this new democratic era? Yet, as a scholar one may wonder what the latitude actually is for shaping the character of tourism in line with the Islamist policies – or in line with whatever preferences the Egyptian citizens might have – when the industry itself seems convinced that offering destinations attuned to the demands of the ‘global market’, including ‘bikini and booze’-tourism, is the only way to attract visitors.
This paper explores how the role of tourism, Islamic heritage and Egyptian Muslim values are understood, discussed and negotiated by various tourist-related actors in Egypt in a time when Egyptian tourism faces serious challenges. It is based on 18 months fieldwork in Egypt (September 2011 - March 2013) and draws its narrative from conversations with tourism pundits, state officials, creative bureaus producing official tourism campaigns, Egyptian tourist workers in the Cairene tourist bazaar and Swedish travellers touring the country.