Monday, June 4, 2012

All-inclusive: the political economy of tourism and study abroad

The gate at the Steigenberger "citadel."
At the Steigenberger Al Dau Club in Hurghada on the Red Sea we enter a gated community that is in effect a little country-within-a-country.  A sign that we were no longer in Egypt is the first sound of a lawnmower since arriving in Egypt.  In search of export earnings from tourism they import lawns to make the guests from Europe feel at home. 
The carefully tended little path of Western landscape in the middle of the otherwise arid desert.  The development here displaced the local fisherman who used to live there.  They were bought out, given new housing (and some stock in the new development), and now live back behind the "Friends Bar" and "Shade" and "Papa's Club"
This could be Orlando or Vegas or the Riviera, except there are still a few women in hijab watching their kids in the pool.
The food is almost all western;  the alcoholic drinks are free; and when you check in they tag you with a blue wristband that looks (and kind of feels) like a hospital or asylum bracelet.  It is, in their words, “all-inclusive.”  In a sense it is like being on a cruise ship that has run aground on the shore of the Red Sea.  At Abu Simbel we had the similar experience of being transported to another world, not so much of the ancient pharaohs, but one in which there are only Europeans or Japanese (and now some Chinese), all there, like us, to take pictures and post status updates on Facebook.  This is one end of the tourism spectrum—isolated, homogenous, safe, clean, antiseptic, and resource intensive—but it is where the center of gravity for tourism here is located.  And for all that it “includes” it is most notable for what it excludes.
My ticket to paradise--Hurghada's version of the Hotel California.
The political economics of tourism involves, as part of the larger neoliberal economic dynamics of the late 20th and early 21st century, two form of exclusion—local residents and cultures pushed aside and commodified in order to make way for the machinations of globalization, and the visiting tourists then quarantined from contact with the local culture to make sure they are not infected with any of the unpleasant realities of daily life in a country where 40% of the people live on less than $2/day. As cities and communities develop new economic activities (dams, factories, roads, strip malls, resorts), people living in or near those operations are forced to relocate, in a move reminiscent of the Vietnam War philosophy of “destroying a village in order to save it.”  It is a practice by no means limited to the Global South—in  Minneapolis there are communities that have been displaced by the needs of the modern world, such as Frogtown and Roundout where freeways created neighborhoods that constitute a form of urban refugee camps.  But in Egypt the dynamic is more pronounced, and we have witnessed several stark examples—from the Nubians in Aswan, the local residents of Qurna, and now the fisherman in Hurghada, whose wharves were bought out to make room for a strip of Western-themed bars, shops, and restaurants, where I now sit, sipping Turkish coffee and feeling angsty about my privilege.

One of the many orientalist establishments in Hurghada, catering to Western preconceptions of the Arab world.
There is the term coined recently for “environmental refugees” who are displaced by drought or other manmade environmental problems, as opposed to the traditional refugees that are forced from their land because of oppression or war.  In contrast, the Nubians, and other inconveniently located marginalized communities here, have been displaced by the idea of modernity—the Nasserist dream of making Egypt modern, up-to-date, with electrical power and all the benefits that it brings, or the Neoliberal dream of globalized and privatized monetary spaces.  Most of the new tourist developments are the product of the neoliberal reforms initiated under Sadat in the 70s, known as the infitah.  For instance, the sound & light shows began around the late 70s, when capitalism arrived at the antiquities, commodifying and converting them into Vegas-style attractions.

During our day with the Nubian community in Aswan we were taken to the ruins of one of the abandoned mud brick villages, which, as one student put it simply, was “sad.”  One could sense the lives that had once filled those spaces, the clear cultural imprint that shaped the structures, and the pain that must have been experienced by those ripped from the land—I imagine not unlike that of a parent who loses a child.
The remains of the Nubian village at the First Cataract on the Nile.
The remains of Old Qurna.  After a 50 year battle that turned violent at time, the residents were relocated into new model homes in the valley.

On the drive from Aswan south to Abu Simbel we passed Karkar, one of the new villages built by the government to house the displaced Nubians, built up on the barren desert plain.  It looks new and modern (with lots of lights and new homes), but nothing to compare to living along the river with its fertile riparian fields.  I think it is hard to overestimate the impact on a people of having their land just wiped off the map by the rising waters of an artificial reservoir.  To be alive and to know the land is still there, but submerged by a lake created to fuel a culture and economy of which you aren’t a part, is indeed sad.

In the encounter between “the local” and “the tourist” we see how the difference in wealth infects the relationship.  In the tourist centers the norm of isolating and separating the tourist from the local culture, is apparently based on the assumption that tourists want nothing to do with ordinary Egyptians, except for them to serve as polite waiters and staff.  Instead the tourist is hermetically sealed in a bubble of Western culture, in which they can experience what they think Oriental culture should be like—belly dancers, palm trees, exotic ruins, sun-soaked beaches, the Arabian nights, and relatively cheap prices. 
We're not in Kansas and we're not in Egypt.  We're in the Kansan imagination of what Egypt is.

What is clear is that when a culture of wealth encounters a culture with less wealth, the wealthy culture pretty much wins.  The Egyptian resorts cater to the visitor, not the other way around, which is very different from how tourism works in Paris or New York where guests are haughtily expected to conform to the local norms.  Here, it is not unconditional surrender, with elements of local culture seeping into tourist bubble;  there are some Egyptian guests at the Steigenberger, and they still serve fool (the staple bean dish) for breakfast, and there are no adult channels on the hotel TV.  If the Islamists continue to consolidate their power here, it is likely they will push back even further, and for all my unease with religious moralizing and anything resembling theocracy, I am not completely averse to this prospect.
Japanese tourists at Abu Simbel, a place largely devoid of Egyptians, except the security guards.

The affects of tourist economy are felt in the local ecosystems as well.  In Hurghada we visited with the 20-year-old Environmental Protection and Conservation Association (HEPCA), and they are worried about where the Red Sea coast is heading, with dozens of large resorts having sprung up right along the shore in the last fifteen years.  The new hotels have helped provide low-paying new jobs in the area, but the ecological and cultural carrying capacity of the region is being seriously strained.  They report that the fish populations are steadily declining, the result of commercial and recreational fishing, erosion and increased turbidity, and excessive boat traffic.  But they have won some significant victories in recent years with banning shark fishing, creating an extensive mooring system and creating the largest national park in Egypt on an offshore island here.  None of these issues are completely back-and-white or hopeless.  Good people are working on alternatives all over the place.
Yachts at the New Marina in Hurghada.  A far cry from the scene in Tahrir Square.
For those not isolated in their resort or tourist enclaves, the challenge of reducing poverty in Egypt appears overwhelming, particularly when looking out over Cairo.  For us, as we walk the streets and show up at the tourist sites, we are repeatedly forced to confront the question of what can or should be done in terms of all the destitute vendors, who are, in effect, begging for money.  To a degree, they are running a market, but their goods are so cheap and plentiful and their sales pitch so desperate, it amounts to something less than a “voluntary exchange of goods for money.”  We do spend a lot of money here:  going to vendors, guides, drivers, hotel staff, and to a degree this helps to alleviate some of the poverty here.  The flow of money from tourist to vendor reminds me of the biological process of osmosis in which ions in solution flow through a semi-permeable membrane, from areas of higher concentration to lower concentration.  Such is the case here with our cash, as we (a volume of highly concentrated cash) come into contact with a volume of low cash concentration (the bulk of the Egyptian population), and cash flows through the semi-permeable membrane of our wallets and ATM cards, via trinkets, scarves, and souvenirs, with a certain biochemical inevitability.  But it is an exchange fraught with problems, with the vast differential in wealth driving an unhealthy dynamic of desperation on one side and guilt-ridden charity on the other.  It raises questions about the value of us being here at all and the sustainability of this kind of economic activity.  This is the fractured economy, in which most of the poor are just kept alive on a life-support system of tourist dollars, with almost no hope of ever rising out of that state.

As we wandered through the ghost town of the abandoned Nubian village, we saw a dark hazy line moving towards us from the west.  At sea I would have said it was a squall line, but in this case it was dust that blew in with a fierce dry wind and coated everything.  One could easily feel that the place was trying to drive us back home.  But I don’t think this is the answer either.  There are alternatives to these inclusive/exclusive encounters, and lessons to be learned for working collaboratively and constructively on reducing the poverty and indignity fostered by these existing economic structures.  There are all sorts of sensible, kind, hard-working people who have rolled up their sleeves and are making a difference.  In our encounters with them there seem to be some lessons for how we can constructively join in.  We have heard repeated calls from those we visited with here to avoid simplistic ideology or rigid attachment to theory.  The local organizations that are succeeding seek practical solutions to the problems at hand, based on as much local knowledge as possible.  They do not get overwhelmed by the enormity of the challenge, but are inspired instead by the enormity of the resources at work addressing these issues.  We can all do what you can to help those efforts and, in so doing, will be part of the most meaningful thing that humans can do—making justice more fully manifest in the world through creative engagement to address the pressing problems of the day (many of them caused by people trying to make greed more fully manifest in the world).

It has been encouraging to see how much the students prefer the direct and relatively unfiltered experiences we’ve had on the trip, and how uncomfortable they have been in these exclusive resort settings.  The less we buy into the model of travel and tourism being promoted by the industry mainstream, the better off we’ll be.  A model for sustainable tourism and study abroad can be found in the kinds of experiences we’ve had with the EYouth group, the Nubians, and in our unstructured wanderings through the streets.  It would be great to build up a network of young people or recent college grads who are studying English, interested in working on their English and in getting to know a little more about the U.S. and pairing them up with a small group of students, to tour around town, as we will be doing in Cairo in a few days.  A similar network of students studying Arabic (or other foreign languages) in the U.S. could provide the counterpart to this in the States.  This kind of tourism and study abroad runs directly against the grain of the travel industry here, but there are hints that things are changing.  The revolution in Tahrir has not trickled down to lower levels of society yet, but the process has begun, and with enough pressure, things can change in this part of Egyptian society as well.
Melons at the market in Hurghada--a bit of the local culture and economy still present in the tourist town.

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