Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Plastic tourism

As we planned our recent trip to Egypt, we encountered a fair amount of negativity toward the country, from people we know here in the UAE as well as from guide books and travel websites. Some comments were made in reference to the general decay and chaos of Cairo, which is certainly noticeable, but most of the derogatory remarks were sadly directed at the Egyptian people who, we were informed, concerned themselves primarily with one thing: extracting as much money from tourists as possible (legitimately or not). But starting with the man sitting beside us on the flight from Abu Dhabi to Cairo (who won us over with pictures of his family and stories of life in Egypt), the warmth and generosity that we encountered over and over in the Egyptians was palpable and humbling. During our seven days in Egypt we had the opportunity to meet local people from rural and urban walks of life, and we had an overwhelming sense they were looking out for us. True they are trying to make a living, but most also seemed genuinely concerned that we were enjoying Egypt. Reflecting on the trip, we wondered why our experience was so different from what others had predicted.

The answer we reached wasn't that we happened to catch the Egyptians at a good time (though January is probably the best month to visit), but that our choice to plan our own itinerary and make all arrangements ourselves, without the help of a travel agent or tour company, allowed us first-hand encounters with local hospitality that we would likely not see as part of a large tour group. Given the abundance of vacation days and proximity to vacation destinations, most UAE expats tend to travel quite a bit, and the definite trend is for them to meet with a travel agent, who books the flight, transportation, hotels, and pops them in with a tour group for scheduled visits to points of interest. This approach saves time and energy and provides peace of mind -- just show up and go where they tell you to go – and for those seeking relaxation as the primary vacation objective, this is a good option. But for those seeking an authentic taste of the culture and people of the vacation destination, we believe that being your own travel agent is a must (apologies to those who make a living this way). We did this primarily to save money, but because of what we learned and experienced in the process, it is now our philosophy of travel.

For example, since we had emailed directly with the hotel managers in the process of booking our stays at three hotels, we already had a rapport by the time we arrived. It did not feel coincidental that we were given the best rooms available at all three (especially considering what we paid). But it goes deeper as well. While walking along the East Bank of the Nile in Luxor, we met a felucca owner named Hassan who turned out to be related to the owner of our hotel (a quaint family-run operation on the West Bank). He was delightful, and we hired him to take us on a two-hour sail to Banana Island, a place recommended in one of the travel books we read in preparation for the trip. On the island, Hassan gave us a short tour of the banana and mango plantation, after which we sat down to tea with him and another local. During our conversation we were introduced to the “East Bank” versus “West Bank” dynamic among the residents of Luxor. On the East Bank you find a developed tourism infrastructure with large hotels and restaurants (mostly chains) and ubiquitous tour buses taking European groups from site to site. The West Bank, on the other hand, is where most of the locals actually live, and it has a rural, almost pastoral feel. Not only are there no large buses to be found near the villages, but you actually find a fair number of donkey drawn carts!

Hassan and his friend talked about the advantages of staying on the West bank because it was only there that you could gain some insight into how the local population actually lives. Those traveling in large groups led by agency-appointed guides often miss out on such experiences because their agendas are driven more by efficiency than the promotion of exploration or discovery. While being ferried from site to site in a group of fifty or more individuals, the experience of the country becomes insulated, determined by the travel agency. Often the tour guides aren’t even locals, and the planned “cultural experiences,” like a belly dancing performance, for example, are not quite authentic. Additionally, the tour company is liable for those on the tour, so the guides may give warnings not to interact with any locals to avoid the off chance that someone will be taken advantage of and then blame the tour company. Perhaps this kind of practice explains the misconceptions that we encountered about the Egyptian people. The unfortunate result is that the local community in Luxor benefits less and less from tourism, and unsuspecting tourists benefit less and less from their visits to Luxor. Hassan and his friend called this "plastic tourism." Not only do you use plastic to pay for it, but the experience itself is fake.

While we nodded in agreement with much of what Hassan said, our newfound beliefs were soon put to the test. On the trip back from Banana Island, Hassan offered to take us on a tour of the West Bank the next day in his own car. He quoted us a very good price and said he would take us wherever we wanted to go and even take us to meet his mother, depending on how much local culture we wanted to experience! It sounded too good to be true, so skeptical and worldly as we are, we tentatively agreed to meet him at a designated time and place the next morning knowing we would investigate further before actually showing up. Back at our hotel, we asked the manager's advice. We told him we had a met a man named Hassan who claimed to be a relative. It turns out that most people in Luxor are related somehow, and every man seems to share one of three names, so this did not narrow it down. Not being able to confirm the identity of this man, he cautioned us about the risks of hiring a local, unlicensed driver as opposed to an established professional service. He said it was up to us (obviously) but that he could not be held responsible if we were unhappy with the experience. We were torn betwen the adventure (and low price) of going with Hassan versus the guarantee of a licensed tour guide, but ultimately we decided to go with our gut and give Hassan the job.

As it turns out, Hassan and his brother did a fine job in taking us from one site to the next, and even added a few stops that we had not anticipated (the most interesting being the restaurant owned by the son of a local who helped Howard Carter in his discovery and excavation of King Tut's tomb, perhaps the greatest archaeological find of the 20th century!).

Had we been a part of a large tour group, I'm sure we would not have stopped at the restaurant, met and befriended Hassan, or done the myriad other things we were able to do because we had planned the trip ourselves (like hiking a trail from the Valley of the Kings to Hatshepsut). While this took more leg work and involved some risk, it was also so much more rewarding. But just in case I've started to sound preachy, you should know that at our next destination, Sharm El-Sheikh, we engaged in a little "plastic tourism" ourselves because we were so exhausted, and I have to admit, it was quite nice. Maybe every vacation needs a bit of both.

Hassan (left) and his first-mate driving us back from Banana Island


  1. Sam, you write so beautifully and elegantly. I love what you have to say and can totally identify, as in places I've been, such as Stuttgart and other towns in Germany for instance, I've stayed in the locally owned inns and been shown wonderful things I would not have otherwise experienced and developed relationship with the local people who acted as guides. That was years ago, but I completely agree with your observations. Thanks for sharing.

    Hugs, Rebecca

  2. You guys are really doing well at being international travelers. I'm really proud of you guys, because you are helping to give Americans a good name. You do write very well, Sam, and thoughtfully!