Conveying the tourist—نقل السياح

A conventional industry, whether based in manufacturing or agriculture, involves organzing people to produce. Mass production relies upon all the well-known methods of recruiting and disciplining a workforce, organizing their use of time, their movement, and their arrangement in physical space, and developing systems of instruction, supervision, and management. Mass tourism, by contrast, involves organizing people to consume. It relies upon similar methods of managing flows and timetables, arranging physical space, and instructing and supervising, to maximize the process of consumption. (Timothy Mitchell, Rule of Experts, p.199)

I overheard a number of people on my AUC tour of Upper Egypt express dismay at the lack of efficiency with which they were moved from one place to the next. More than the lack of efficiency of Egyptian transportation, this betrays the extent to which Egyptian authorities have succeeded in promoting the expectation of efficiency in the conveyance of tourists. On the contrary, this sector of the Egyptian transportation industry is highly efficient. As the state works toward making the tourism industry central to its plans for economic expansion, largely at the urging of the World Bank, the government is very much invested in organizing the country’s tourism industry to efficiently extract money from tourists. This means shunting the flow of tourism (and tourists) into sanctioned channels, sequestered from unpleasant interactions with local, unlicensed peddlers. Whereas in most countries one will find tourist traps, in Egypt, it is more like a tourist aquaduct, a touri-duct, if you will.

Here are some forms this touri-duct takes:

The Cruise Ship

Cruise ships are the prefered mode of transport and the tourist’s “home away from home” between the temple city of Luxor and Aswan, the location of the High Dam and the gateway to the uppermost part of Upper Egypt. The cruise ships are small towns unto themselves with exorbidant prices to foreground the isolation (there are no drinks under LE8.00, including water, and the champagne—a not very good brand—costs LE1400.00), and yet tourist money still manages to ooze out over the sides of the ship. At Esna, approaching a barrage on the Nile, an armada of small rowboats surrounds the cruise ships, yelling up to the sun decks of the ships while lassoing the sides of the ships as if to board it and take it by force. They toss gallabayas (traditional Egyptian robes) and shawls in plastic bags up to the sun deck or the balconies of cruise ship passengers and ask incredible prices in return. They will start in the hundreds and bargain down to the 30’s, only to clarify that they were speaking of Dollars or Euros rather than the assumed Egyptian Pounds, whereupon the process repeats itself. On our ship, one of the two on-board merchants came to the deck to counter the offers of the boatmen below, with prices at LE20.00 for garments of better quality in better condition. He was rebuffed by the tourists, many of whom preferred the adventure of haggling over prices and negotiating garment colors and sizes over a vertical difference of some 10-15 meters. Shipside, it is clearly viewed as a game. Perhaps some of the vendors enjoyed the game, too, but their expressions tended to suggest the gravity of the matter.

The Tour Bus

On roads, the primary tourist vehicle is the tour bus . It is easy to tell if the driver is lost or being tricky if the road curb is not painted in alternating black and white. The latter is a sign of roads intended for tourists. The names of the tour companies in English will generally have the word “travel” or “transport” in them; this is transformed to “tourist” in the Arabic translation, reflecting a sensitivity on the part of the Egyptians to the American discomfort with a spade being called a spade. In some places, such as between Aswan and Abu Simble, I’m given to understand that tour busses must travel in an organized caravan, passing through numerous security checkpoints along the way. Realizing the tight schedules of the tourists and taking into account the 3-hour trip to Abu Simble, the security forces release the first caravan at 3am. On such trips, tourists will be provided “breakfast boxes,” with sandwiches, bread, spread, fruit and juice. The boxes can be found littering the parking lot and surrounding areas at the Temple of Abu Simble. In a gesture I always considered the most pollyannish form of environmentalism, I picked up some of these boxes, only to discover there was nowhere to “throw them away”.

The Horse and Carriage
After the tour bus (or it’s lesser cousin, the micro-tour-bus) the next most common means of conveying tourists to their destinations between the cruise ship and the tourist site is the horse and carriage (every so often, one will find a group of people who have paid a premium to ride mules). Sometimes these guys are hired en mass to transport a group tour to the nearby temple, in which case the price will have been agreed-upon between the driver and the tour guide prior to riding. Should the tourist attempt to leave the cruise ship independently (perhaps to get a decent cup of coffee or purchase some bottled water that doesn’t cost LE8.00), he or she will most likely be immediately propositioned for a one-hour tour by horse and buggy of Luxor/Edfu/whatever at a “very good price”. Even if the tourist were to insist that she or he is going only a block or two away, the driver will insist that he give him/her a ride there (Egyptians are often dismayed by Westerners’ desire to walk rather than take a cab or shuttle, but this would be considered a ridiculous proposition even by those standards). I don’t know the details, but the horse and carriage drivers do seem to be licensed in some way or another. They all seem to have a sort of medallion, like with taxicabs.

The Motorboat or Falucca

Crossing the Nile, the vehicle is the motorboat, a disquiting number of which are named “The Titanic”. I guess that’s supposed to be something akin to “break a leg.” Generally, these are commissioned to shuttle tourists back and forth, but on occasion, they can be part of the tour itself. Musical accompaniment may be negotiated for an additional charge (by the tour guide). For the tourist interested in a calmer, more relaxed (and hence, less Egytian) local tour by boat, the falucca, a particular kind of sail boat, is preferred.

The Tram
At major tourist destinations of any size, tourists are encouraged to ride trams, lest they be forced to walk 100m. Most people will ride them simply because they are there (that’s what I did, anyway). I was left out of the negotiating process for most of this trip, with professional tourist managers taking our money and attending to the negotiation, so I don’t know this for sure, but I believe the trams, once the entrance fee has been paid, are free. They seem primarily to serve as a means of controlling and managing the movement of tourists.

The Tour Guide

While one doesn’t literally “ride” a tour guide, rarely is the tourist left without one, who may or may not have any idea what he’s talking about (I say “he” because I think the relatively few number of female tour guides are actually educated Egyptologists to some degree—maybe archaeologists who had their funding cut). They serve the same purpose as the tram, however, allowing the industry and authorities to maintain control of the movement of tourists. Especially in crowded temples, tour guides must resort to the use of peculiar devices to maintain control of the group. On my tour, this was most evident at the Temple of Horus in Edfu. Tour guides all carried a stick with something on the end. In some cases, it was a sign with the name of the tour company. In many cases, it was simply a child’s toy. One particularly effective one was a squeaky hammer toy. The tour guide would bang it back and forth, producing a shrill squeaking sound which helped maintain the attention of tourists prone to being distracted by the things they actually came on the tour to see. We in the AUC group were lucky to have Chahinda Karim, who seemed less interested in infantalizing us (perhaps undeservedly). She used an umbrella, which served the dual purpose in sunnier locations as a parasol.

The Strip

The touri-duct is well constructed, but it can leak slightly at the joints, where tourists transfer from the bus to the motorboat or the cruise ship to the horse and carriage. At these junctures, local unsanctioned peddlers may creep into the system and occasionally extract several dollars for a scarf, a triad of ancient egyptian figurines, a map, a packet of postcards or nothing at all. Occasionally, they will demand baksheesh for holding one’s hand as one exits the motorboat (not a particularly difficult task without any help), or simply for being there. Generally, however, the joints in this system are well-sealed with official mini-suqs, stocked with water for LE7.00, souvenirs, batteries, film and memory cards for those people whose image collections have become too bloated. The role of these tourist consumer strips was most obvious in Edfu, where tourists must exit through a sunken and walled pathway flanked with shops and aggressive vendors of overpriced crap. The feeling of being in a touri-duct was quite palpable here.

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