On the purpose of tourism: from the front line of the industry

One of my favourite places for leading tours was always Damascus. With the slumping architecture bearing down upon us amid the labyrinth alleyways, I would begin my group’s introduction to the Old City by taking the winding path that leads to the Shi’a pilgrimage site of Saida Ruqqiyeh Mosque. Invariably, as we threaded our way through the medieval streets, we’d become caught up in the great tide of Iranian pilgrims who were all heading that way as well.

For many in my group it was an uncomfortable situation where we would end up separated from each other; thrown to the mercy of the crowd as it surged forwards, and backwards, and to either side in relentless waves of people. When we finally washed up at the end of the street outside the mosque my group would be sweating, slightly frazzled and usually all looking a bit dazed after this very Damascene version of crowd surfing.

What they didn’t know was that I could have avoided the crowds quite easily by taking another route but had deliberately guided them into the chaos. I didn’t want my clients just to see pretty monuments and nice museums. I didn’t want to keep them swaddled from reality in cotton wool but rather I wanted them to be able to get in there and smell the sweat of the crowds; to become part of a place, if only for an instant.

Cheaper, faster, now…

Like most people who’ve worked on the front line of tourism as a tour leader or guide, I have developed a healthy disrespect for the industry’s marketing jargon. For years there has been a very obvious disconnect between the tourism industry’s love affair with hyperbole and how it actually operates on the ground. The fluffy throwaway phrases in the glossy brochures offering clients ‘once in a lifetime adventures’, ‘off the beaten track experiences’ and the ubiquitous ‘responsible travel’ become hard to swallow when every year you see the trips get cheaper, more ‘extras’ squeezed out, and the itineraries grow ever more homogenized in the quest for competitive pricing.

The industry has been feeding the same line of ‘cheaper, faster, now’, for so long that we seem to have bred a style of tick-list tourism where clients demand more but pay less and see everything but experience nothing. On returning home a tourist may be able to reel off an impressively long list of sights they saw but did they stick around long enough to be able to describe to you the uncomfortable sensation of the layer of gritty sand that sandpapered their sun-parched skin in the desert. They can walk through an ancient, bustling souq but are so busy documenting their visit so that they can remember it later – their camera permanently glued to their face – that they fail to see the stall-vendor in the corner beckoning to them to come drink syrupy tea. Is this the style of tourism we want to be involved in? And more importantly, is this what clients want? I seriously don’t believe so.

As those involved at the top of the tourism tree become more and more focussed on pricing and marketing it’s now more important than ever for those down at the roots of the industry to realise the role we can each play in promoting a different ideal; an approach that, for me, is the true purpose of tourism. Seeking connections between people, places and cultures so that the tourist is no longer just a spectator peeping through the window into an exotic ‘other’ land but part of that world, if only for a minute, themselves.

By their very nature of packing in as much as possible in the least amount of time, it is difficult to do little more than scratch the surface of a destination on a tour. But a good guide or leader can make all the difference in helping to lift the lid off a place and allow tourists to travel not just further but deeper.

We need to foster a sense of inclusion where it’s not ‘us’ against ‘them’. I’ve lost count of the times I’ve overheard guides tell their clients to not talk to anyone in markets and at sights and on the street. If you dive into the market and are comfortable chatting to the vendors, your clients will feel that they can do this too. If you just walk through simply giving a spiel on the history along the way and ignoring everyone, that’s the way your passengers will act as well. For our groups we are the benchmark for how to behave and by using this responsibility wisely we can inspire our clients to go out and make local connections themselves.

Hello Iran…

There was this one time trapped amid the flow of pilgrims in Damascus, when a car insanely tried to navigate down the road and caused the crowd to suddenly tip madly to the side. An elderly Iranian woman, shielding her face from view by clutching the corner of her black shroud in her teeth, lost her footing and grabbed the wrist of one of my female clients in an attempt to regain her balance. This then caused my client to stumble and she in turn reached out and grabbed the shoulder of the tiny Iranian lady in front of her until it looked like it could turn into a domino effect of tourists and pilgrims tumbling endlessly down the street.

I heaved them all onto the narrow ledge of a shop front where I’d managed to shelter the rest of my group until the car to blame for all this chaos finished manoeuvring through the street. We all looked at each other and burst out laughing. There was no ‘us’ and ‘them’. No strange line drawn by different clothing or eye colour, religion or politics. We were simply some people who’d all nearly ended up face-down on the ground.

When the car finally managed to grumble past the Iranian ladies patted my client’s hand to say thank you. Then some young men pushed towards us through the crowd. The ladies waved excitedly back and beckoned them over and suddenly we were all waving madly into their video camera and shouting ‘Hello Iran!’ with the Iranian ladies beside us grinning broadly. We were no longer observers. Just fellow actors in this crazy carnival called the world.

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The above article was first published as part of the ‘Tourism: What’s The Point?’ debate on the Conscious Tourism Blog.

Images from a revolution

All of these images were taken in Egypt throughout 2011. Some are of Tahrir Square during the January 25 revolution. Others were taken at the July 2011 protests. A few are examples of the amazing revolutionary graffiti which took over the streets that year. Much of that street art has unfortunately been painted over now.

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Notes from a revolution

Sunset while standing on 6th of October Bridge, I watched disco-lit pleasure boats cruise upon the darkening Nile while tinny Arabic pop music rose up from the river. I strolled down Talaat Harb Street.  The smell of freshly fried taamiya and charcoaled meat floated over Orabi Square. I sat down at a table and watched the men on the corner lay out their mats to pray.

“Welcome to Egypt,” the waiter said as I sipped iced hibiscus juice and the Muezzin began the call to prayer.

“Welcome to Egypt.” A man with a battered suitcase of fake Rolexes said as he approached my table to try to make a sale.

“Welcome to Egypt.” A couple of kids running past me yelled. “Welcome to Egypt. Welcome to Egypt.”

As I walked home a thousand shisha pipes scented the air with apple-perfume. Five more passersby welcomed me to Egypt. I rolled my eyes and sighed.

I woke up. Dazed, I sat up in my hammock and stared out at the sea. Tiny rippling waves lapped on the shore. I walked over to my friend’s hut to watch his TV. We sat silently as the powder-pink puff of the Egyptian Museum came into view. Pitched battles of sticks and stones and camels from the Pyramids charged across the nightmare screen. The reporter was standing on 6th of October Bridge. A friend in Cairo rang us crying. I mooched across the beach, shoulders slouched. One of the staff was raking the sand, erasing the remaining footprints of the last tourists to leave.

Marooned upon a stretch of white sand at my friend’s remote beach camp on the Red Sea I watched as a bland square in Cairo’s downtown became headline news. Tahrir Square’s traffic – all belching and burping out diesel and din – was nowhere to be seen. Our internet disappeared. Phone calls to friends in Cairo wouldn’t work. The sun loungers on the beach emptied as the tourists fled. Soon it was just me left. I drank the camp dry of diet coke and finished the last of the muesli.

“Now you eat like an Egyptian,” my friend said and I swapped to lemon juice and fuul.

When the phone rang it was Radio New Zealand requesting an interview.

“What’s happening? What have you seen?” The reporter asked.

“I don’t think I can help you out,” I said. “I’m in the Sinai and there’s nothing happening here.”

“Nothing at all?”

I looked out at the beach.  A fisherman’s boat bobbed lazily on the sea.

“Still no sniper-fire or tanks invading the beach yet,” I replied.

Bedouin women, cloaked in their embroidered niqabs, sacks of jewellery and scarves carried upon their heads, gave up their daily patrol along the beach. I tried to ration my cigarettes. We began to run out of fresh vegetables and my friend fretted about finishing the last of the generator’s diesel fuel. Banks had shut. ATMs had bled dry. Transport to and from Cairo had been cut off. The mural of Mubarak outside the newspaper building on Ramses Street invaded my dreams.

“You see that man in the aviator shades, the one that looks like a mafia boss? Well that’s our president.” My friend Muhammad would tell tourists.

I thought of Cairo at midnight when the city streets shrugged off their blanket of heat and the hint of a cool breeze brought everyone outside. Crowds of girls with hijabs pinned and tied in mysteriously intricate ways, fabric floating after them like peacock tails, as they walked arms-linked down the street. Families gathering together on street corners, eating tubs of koshary. I would lie in bed and be rocked to sleep by Cairo’s lullaby; somebody yelling and somebody laughing; screeching tyres and smashing glass; the dull thud of a car crash; the sound of children kicking a football against a nearby wall; and then the horns, always the horns.

Moonlight stretched its fingers through the bamboo roof of my hut and threw shadows across the web of the mosquito net. The light from my alarm clock told me it was 2am. I got up, turned on my torch, and padded across the cold sand to the bathroom. Somewhere on the beach a dog was barking. A truck rumbled across the highway, headlights briefly flashing down the road. Beyond it, the craggy silhouettes of the Sinai Mountains rose up like mythical beasts preparing to attack. The sea shimmered as the waves rolled in. I sat on the beach and had a cigarette. In the morning I watched the blackened beaux-arts facades of downtown reduced to a backdrop on the television screen. The internet came back on. I replied madly to worried friends and relatives; trying to explain my geographic isolation from Cairo.

I’m miles away in the Sinai.

The worst thing that could happen to me is if I run out of cigarettes.

Yes don’t worry I’m safe.

Mubarak was going to go. No he wasn’t. The military may stage a coup. Or they won’t. There was the Day of Rage, the Million Man March, the Day of Departure, when nobody actually left. I tried to guess what would happen next and failed. Lost within the pundits’ commentaries offering up conflicting opinion and hype, I watched desperate protesters breaking up the dusty pavement for ammunition on the TV screen. Tahrir Square had never been part of the Cairo I loved. More eyesore than attraction, its petrol-haze stench hung low near the ground and my eyes stung whenever I was nearby. I lay in my hammock and remembered the swelling despair of navigating the labyrinth underpass between its roads to arrive, sweat trickling down my back, into the blinding sunlight in front of the Mugamma building’s slab of Stalinist-chic and swallow metallic-tinged gulps of encrusted air. Hawkers flogging kitchen pans and plastic cups; one man selling popcorn; everybody rushing in and out the doors of the Mugamma with papers to be signed and stamped; engulfed whole into the building’s gloom.

The bamboo huts lay empty, the sea un-swum in and the snorkelling gear unused. My friend sent his staff on holiday one by one.  I went to Nuweiba to try and find money. Flocks of goats scuffled along the stone-pitted roadside between drooping palm trees and spindly acacias with their Christmas tree decorations of discarded plastic bags. In the manicured gardens of the Nuweiba Hilton where I finally found an open bank a lone camel, busily chewing on a wilting bush, was the only guest. The Cairo-bound bus began running again. It was time to head back.

Tahrir Square. A tide of people enveloped the roads; taken over by tanks and tents, men, women, young, old, wide-eyed and weary-eyed. Toddlers slung up onto shoulders and flags flown high. A boy sat with his grandmother on the pavement draped in black, red and white. A group of men lent against a tank reading newspapers and smoking cigarettes. One man had climbed to the top of a lamp post and was waving a huge Egyptian flag in the air. There was music blasted from loudspeakers, there were prayers. In the background the Mugamma building glowered down upon us. Posters were tacked across fences. The facade of KFC had become an exhibition space for revolutionary art. A man offered me a cup of free tea from his trestle table on a street corner. A fruit vendor had decorated his cart with flags and was selling revolutionary bananas. I fought against the sea of people still swarming into the square and walked out down a car-less Talaat Harb Street. A man approached me as I took a photo of the traffic-free road.

“It’s amazing isn’t it,” he said.

I wasn’t sure if he was talking about the silent street or the revolution or both. I nodded in agreement.

One more street block up, a five minute stroll from Tahrir, a street vendor sat on a pavement corner surrounded by plastic dolls dressed in pink and purple sparkly dresses and shaggy toy cats with flashing green eyes. He wound up the dolls so that they circled jerkily around on their little stands accompanied by scratchy music from a child’s nursery rhyme. A group of young men – faces red, white and black – marched down the road with voices raised high in a chant. The vendor looked up and watched them as they headed towards the square. He took out a duster and began brushing the desert dirt off a doll’s dress.

“Welcome to Egypt,” he said as I passed by.

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This story was previously published in Perceptive Travel

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