In Egypt, tourism is big business. Nearly 13 million people visited the land of the pharaohs in 2008, and officials say the global economic crisis caused only a temporary slippage in the numbers in 2009.
A budding eco-travel movement is emerging, almost unnoticed amid the bulging tour buses and packed cruise ships. Its leaders are trying to tap into the skills and knowledge of Egypt's Bedouins and other tribal peoples, who have been all but ignored by the mainstream tourism industry.
The tourism experience in Egypt is best known for the hordes of tour groups circling the Great Pyramids of Giza or wilting under the desert sun at Luxor's Valley of the Kings.
Egypt's annual tourism revenues of nearly $7 billion in 2005 soared to more than $10.5 billion in 2008.
The government has razed shantytowns and swept aside poor villagers in efforts to make the experiences more pleasant for tourists.
Integrating Traditional Communities
But in late October, activists and businesspersons gathered with members of various Egyptian tribes in the remote southeastern desert to celebrate their heritage and traditions, and to explore ways of responsibly bringing people to the Egypt that package tour visitors never see.
The second annual Characters of Egypt festival featured Sinai Bedouins from the eastern hills, Nubian tribes from the south, and the tribes of the western desert from as far as the Siwa Oasis near the Libyan border.
It was a rare opportunity for the tribes to swap songs, stories, food and art, and to debate whether this new eco-travel movement could provide desperately needed jobs without forever changing their lives.
The head of Egypt's national parks, Mustafa Foudy, said that last concern is part of his job — to see that eco-tourism doesn't turn into a smaller version of mass tourism.
"When you talk about eco-tourism, we are talking about responsible tourism, people that they come and gain experience by sitting with these local people. We trained them to work as guides, to take these tourists to safari, for example, to act as bird-watchers, to help the tourists," he said.
Overcoming 'The Handicrafts Plateau'
So far, eco-tourism is a term that can have many definitions in Egypt, from expensive "luxury eco-lodges" to primitive Bedouin-led desert treks. One of the founders of the tribal festival is Lynn Freiji, director of the Wadi Environmental Science Center.
Freiji says well-intentioned efforts these days focus too much on what she calls "the handicrafts plateau" — creating and marketing jewelry and carpets to tourists. She says the next step should be a sustainable travel sector that values the environment and relies on the knowledge and skills of those who live there.
"The tribes are those that have protected the territories. Somehow we tend to forget about them. These people need to be banked on. These men need to get to work, these fishermen need to be better integrated. These tribes who have the knowledge of the desert should be working hand in hand with tour operators," she says.
Better Lives For Bedouins?
Freiji says there are obstacles, including the deep mistrust between the government and tribal people, some of whom thrive on smuggling. Clashes, especially in the northern Sinai, are a regular occurrence. Each year when she tries to organize the tribal festival, Freiji says she must provide a list of all those attending to Egyptian security forces five months in advance, and inevitably security officials strike a number of names from the list.
Mohammed Darwish Hamdan, a Sinai Bedouin, said that without tourism, living conditions in the Sinai would be even worse than their current dismal state. But he said the heavy-handed tactics of the security forces make development impossible. He said the common procedure of rounding up relatives of a wanted man to force him to come forward is not only wrong but disrespectful — a major sin in tribal culture.
"They have to respect the dignity of the Bedouin when they deal with us. And they have to offer us a chance to make a living. If someone does something wrong, OK, arrest that person. But don't seize innocent people for someone else's deed," he says.
With additional reporting by Aya Batrawi