Egypt's tourism industry has long relied on beach resorts and archaeological sites to attract visitors, but intangible heritage tourism is becoming increasingly popular. What can Egypt do to develop this potential market?
Egypt has been a destination for adventurers and explorers since Pharaonic times. From Greek and Roman chroniclers to European travellers, these early tourists went in search of Egypt’s hidden side, its ancient history, its traditional culture, folklore, social traditions and religious rituals. Tourists today, however, prefer to steer away from exploration and discovery, restricting their adventures to the three ‘S’s – the sun, sea and sand of luxurious beach resorts. In 2009, more than 75% of Egypt’s tourists went to the Red Sea or Sinai beaches, while only 4.4% arrived at Luxor and Aswan.
A brief glance at the investment statistics for the hospitality industry proves where tourists are going, and what tourist product is being promoted: more than 55% of all new hotel rooms under construction are along the Red Sea coast and in Southern Sinai. Moreover, Egypt – as the minister of tourism announced in 2012 – is aiming to attract thirty million tourists per annum. How will this target be reached over the coming ten years?
Egypt seems to be constantly chasing new markets to sustain the tourist numbers it receives every year. But is it doing the right things? Will it be able to reach its goal of thirty million tourists? How can Egypt offer a unique tourist experience, one that goes beyond the standard ‘package tourism’ and en-masse surgical strikes to archaeological sites, so characteristic of the three ‘S’s? Does Egypt have any other resources it can explore to diversify its tourist offerings?
The dilemma of cultural heritage tourism
Cultural heritage tourism, simply defined, relies on the movement of individuals from one country to another to visit different forms of cultural heritage, be it tangible (temples, mosques, museums…) or intangible (social traditions, folklore…). It is a highly debatable topic since it involves a wide spectrum of stakeholders, starting with conservation authorities, tourism officials, local communities, and many others, each of whom has a different mandate and interest. On the one hand, tourism stakeholders aim to maximize the visitation of heritage sites to attain the highest possible revenue. On the other hand, antiquities and conservation authorities are mainly interested in preserving the sites and their integrity. From a conservation perspective, this can only be reached by reducing the number of visitors to monuments and historical sites. This, however, contradicts the goal of commercial tourism.
Accordingly, it is common to include a third party, to moderate this balance and to ensure that tourism at sites contributes to the local economy, while at the same time ensuring that the site or monument visited is not jeopardized. The same applies to intangible heritage, where the value of rituals, folkloric art, and crafts, for example, is not damaged by the commercialization resulting from tourism.
Why care about intangible heritage tourism?
The answer is quite simple: heritage tourism in general, and intangible heritage tourism in particular, are becoming increasingly popular among travellers. The benefits of this are not reaped by travel agencies alone, intangible heritage tourism opens doors for employment opportunities in related industries and services, many of which actually contribute to protecting the intangible heritage itself. The crafting of traditional musical instruments, for instance, requires a market to grow, and the recording and selling of folk music helps sustain dying musical arts. The same applies to traditional attire, even if the garments are made solely for performances.
So what’s new?
Egypt is a cultural heritage tourism destination and has been for centuries. So far, however, only Egypt’s temples, tombs, monuments, and archaeological sites have received attention. But what about intangible heritage? Has it been managed for touristic purposes before?
Well, perhaps it has in a limited way. The typical tourist package in Egypt includes a dance performance here or there, but ultimately it is only halfheartedly included as a sub-product, forming a rather negligible portion of the overall tourist experience. The dominant intangible heritage encountered by tourists is the famous tanoura dance, performed on a regular basis in Cairo at most touristic hotels and aboard Nile cruises.
However, these particular offerings have many shortcomings. They are not presented in their natural setting and end up becoming tourist commodities. This transforms such folkloric events into a commercial entertainment activity, detracting from their primary role as a traditional experience, showcasing a local community’s culture. Not only are such performances often out of place and out of context, they are seldom accompanied by information about their origin, cultural background, occasion, or representation to the local culture.
The tanoura being performed on a stage beneath the multicoloured glare of disco lights may seem awkward (and tacky), but what is even more out of place is the popular dance performed at a ‘Bedouin night’, in a completely alien environment. The tanoura show usually comes with a belly dancer, an open buffet, and all the components of a standard tourist package. It is a not a particularly unique experience. Although they remain popular in every tour operator’s map, these performances rarely leave a lasting impression on the viewers. In addition to them lacking explanatory information and appearing out of context, they provide no contact with the local community, or even the performers. They slowly transform from a genuine cultural experience into mere night-time entertainment.
One excellent and positive example of such an experience, however, is the ‘Characters of Egypt’ festival (www.charactersofegypt.com). This festival, held once a year, displays the different facets of Egypt’s cultural identity through a diversity of events, bringing together numerous ethnic groups from all over the country. The attendees spend three days with visitors from each of Egypt’s Bedouin tribes; they socialize, participate in group activities, dine together, and ultimately all return home as friends who have enjoyed a true cultural exchange.
What can Egypt do better?
Let’s examine what other countries have been doing. Morocco is visited by almost ten million tourists per annum. It has few tangible resources that can be exploited for tourism: several palaces, mosques, bazaars and markets, unimpressive beaches, and little else. So how is its tourism industry growing so quickly? In order to answer this question, I invite you to take a quick look at their official tourism campaigns. You will immediately see that Morocco focuses much more on its intangible resources than on its monuments and beaches. Themes such as hospitality, traditional cuisine and drinks, local communities, and fine crafts recur repeatedly, and are used to portray Morocco as a special destination with a unique character.
Turkey is an even better example. Merging the ministries of culture and tourism into one organization is a clear sign that the state understands the connection between these two spheres. Its advertisements highlight the cultural identity and diversity of the country. Even though the Turkish Ministry of Culture and Tourism has identified their heritage component as the weakest element in the country’s tourism offering, by 2023 they aim to make USD 66.8 billion from tourism alone, by linking inland tourism to its current three ‘S’s tourism for which it is best known. This clearly demonstrates that touristic countries are focusing much more on cultural heritage tourism – and more specifically its intangible form – to drive growth and sustainability in their tourism industry.
Given the cultural wealth that Egypt holds, we should consider developing new products to attract different segments of tourists. We should also consider building parallel small-scale industries and service organizations to serve this category. By focusing more on the intangible aspect of the touristic experience, and highlighting this in promotional campaigns, Egypt – as well as other countries – will offer a more meaningful visit that will not only leave travellers with a lasting memory, but also a much deeper appreciation and understanding of the culture they have visited.
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Sherif Lotfy Sherif Lotfy holds an MBA specialized in marketing of intangible cultural heritage for tourism from the German University in Egypt. He is also enrolled in a master’s degree in the economics of cultural heritage at the University of Tor Vergata in Rome. He is originally a telecommunications engineer with a passion for cultural heritage.