Only in Egypt
The cradle of civilisation, Egypt will never seize to impress and draw in visitors.
The land of wonders and fairy tales, enigmatic deserts, endless legends and spectacular beaches: Egypt has been through many challenges, but it has always bounced back. Its richness lies not in its tourist sites and unsurpassed heritage, but in the culture and diversity of its people and the overwhelming warmth they all share, their ability to make friends with startling spontaneity. You can meet someone on the street, in the metro, at the park or the cinema or the supermarket, have a five-minute conversation, and feel as if you've known them for a lifetime. Egyptians are humorous under the toughest circumstances and they never fail to crack a joke about themselves. It has arguably been this exquisite sense of humor that carried them through the ordeals of life. Something in Egyptian faces melts the heart and breaks barriers of the mind; hospitality is inherent to the personality since early history. Egyptians may not be good at following rules, but they can make you feel at home better than anyone else.
Only in Egypt will you see extravagant banquets for even informal visitors over lunch or dinner, regardless of the wealth of the host family. You will never pass people eating without being invited to partake of their food whether they know you or not. All Egyptian homes cook more than they need, ready to feed whoever knocks on the door. An Egyptian will go out of their way for a friend, and once they know you, you're a friend. Time is never of the essence in the way it is in the Western world, and schedules are easily tailored to making people feel at home Òê" part of the family. It is this spirit of generosity that makes Egyptians unique, and for that they need to be appreciated; you should feel perfectly safe among them. When it comes to tourism, Egyptians know how important this sector is to their well-being; they have been in the business for the past six thousand years. Yet no country can ever be crime or conflict free, and Egypt is a country with its own worries on the trajectory of its fight for freedom and democracy. It needs the support of a world whose respect it has earned.
Ever since the 25 January revolution I've heard all sorts of stories, mostly misinformation about safety in Egypt. And regardless of the many calls made by various official and unofficial bodies assuring the world that Egypt is not all about Tahrir Square or areas were riots have struck, there seem to be less informed parties exaggerating events and scaring visitors away. It was to this effect that the UNWTO held its second International Conference on Tourism and the Media in the spectacular Port Ghaleb resort in Marsa Alam, in collaboration with Egypt's Tourism Authority (ETA). A conference most needed at that time, for it is indeed the time where both parties need to work in harmony so that each and every country in the world gets its fair share of the international tourism market. Of course, exchanging experiences was enriching, yet it was the arrogant pitch of some foreign media that reflected the dire need for more of these conferences to straighten things up. My favourite speech from the media was the one by the CNN's Ben Wedeman, which reflected a thorough understanding of Egypt and provided an excellent strategy for a better understanding between the media and the travel sectors. In a conversation after the conference, Wedeman told me he wished the panel included representatives of the local travel press and media to share their experiences. Well, it might be taken into consideration to include such representation in future gatherings.
I admire the optimism of the UNWTO's secretary general, Taleb Rifai (see page 2), whose faith in Egypt is so strong it makes you certain the country will bounce back as it has done so often before in this as much as in other fields. Born in Cairo, Rifai's passion for Egypt and faith in its people manifested when, in the toughest of the events, he was there in Tahrir Square among the rebels, "and never felt safer". All due respect to our Minister of Tourism, Mounir Fakhry Abdel Nour, who holds the post in such challenging times and exerts all efforts to encourage the world to come visit us. I am sure there will come a time when his sector will bear the fruit of his many efforts and the projects now underway. But the best experience from the conference for me was being introduced to the digital story tellers and travel bloggers, Daniel Noll, Audrey Scott and Erica Hargreave, on how they partner with tourism boards and DMOs to use social media and blogging to change the conversation about tourist destinations challenged by negative perceptions related to current events. They have worked closely with tourism boards, helping Òê" crucially Òê" to convey a destination's more human side. A destination is not only a place where you go to the beach, for a hike in the mountains or an adventure in the desert; it is also a country with people who have their own hopes and fears, expectations and frustrations. To visit a country is to know its people, not see them as extras on Discovery channel.
So, when you travel, you enjoy the destination's attractions, cuisine, music, culture etc. But when you are in Egypt, above all you enjoy the warm welcome of a nation that will always look out for your safety and comfort, confident that each one of you is a guest, and guests are friends who deserve Òê" and get Òê" only the best in us. It was cheering to realise that this was evident in the eyes of all participants who were already booking their next visit to Egypt before they danced their last night away on the magnificent Port Ghaleb lagoon.
El Ahram weekly 3-9 May 2012