The road less traveled: how alternative tourism is proving to be a viable option for the Egyptian economy
When the General Authority for Museums announced earlier this month that the iconic Abdeen Palace would be finally open for visits, interest was high at first, with over 1,000 people saying online that they would go. After all, the palace has never been open to the public and its museums just reopened this year for the first time since the January 2011 revolution.
However, when the authority also announced that tours must have a minimum of 10 people per group, with ticket prices set at LE200 for Egyptians, LE250 for Arabs and LE 350 for foreigners, some said they were no longer as excited.
Sara Mostafa, a freelance artist, said the high ticket prices plus the ban on cameras could keep her away. Still, though, she said that "the initiative itself is great and could be the first in a series of plans to open more palaces to the public".
Egypt's tourism sector has been struggling for years now. According to Atteya Fawzy, a tour operator, the sector has seen a huge drop since last summer, with only 15 percent of facilities operating.
In that light, ideas like the Abdeen Palace tours are a way to encourage tourists – both local and foreign – to visit sites different than the usual ones advertised in Egypt.
Several initiatives have been introduced recently to offer an alternative to traditional tours and encourage more locals to become more engaged in sites and activities in Cairo and across Egypt, away from very commercial visits.
The idea behind Rehla Khana began when the group planned a trip to Bab Zuweila in Islamic Cairo and realised that not many Egyptians visit places like it – or that they might pass by them without being aware of their existence.
Now Rehla Khana offers a variety of unconventional trips to different areas inside and outside Cairo, giving their clients an unusual experience while learning more about the places they visit.
One of the group's most popular trips that caused a stir on social media was Rehlet Al-Omlat – a trip to all the famous mosques printed on Egyptian currency.
Nirvana Atef El-Sayed, one of the founders of Rehla Khana, says that the group is always on the lookout for unusual places that are off the beaten path.
"When we announced that we were organising a trip to New Hermopolis in Minya, many people started asking what was there in Minya to see, which was surprising, that many people didn't know that Minya has a number of famous sites to visit,” El-Sayed said.
Rehla Khana's next event, a Nile felucca cruise and a trip to the Egyptian Museum, will take place on 21 June.
Although this group was started by two well-known photographers, Hossam El-Manadily and Hazem Khaled, their trips aren't just for those with cameras – they've also attracted many people who are simply interested in visiting new places in Egypt.
The idea was first launched as part of a photography workshop at Beit El-Raseef, a cultural centre in the south Cairo district of Maadi, El-Manadily explains.
"But we soon started getting questions from random people asking if they could join, even if they were not photographers, and we welcomed all people to come and learn from the experience," he said, adding that they try to offer low-priced trips as the purpose is educational and about photography rather than turning a profit.
What started as a small group of photographers and individuals has grown a lot, with trips to Al-Moez Street in Islamic Cairo boasting over 300 people, he says.
Recent trips include Africa Safari Park on Cairo-Alexandria Desert Road, which El-Manadily said attracted a lot of people interested in both taking pictures and learning about the location.
While many other groups have only appeared in the last year or two, Weekend Trips has been around for five years and still stands out from all the others that came later.
The group's founder, Yehia El-Decken, comes from a tourism background. His father has owned a tourism company since the 1970s and so they've worked together. But the idea for his own group came as a result of extensive research and as an answer to what he saw as the industry's many problems.
First, he didn't like that the word "tourist" only applied to foreigners – to him, it's anybody who visits a place.
This means creating a wide variety of tours that engage both locals and foreigners, with the costs of the trips and the salaries of tour guides priced accordingly to prevent the hassle of tips at the end of the day.
Second, he felt that many trips in Egypt didn't offer Egyptian culture – instead, the tours created an environment similar to the ones the visitors came from, with a few visits to Egyptian places thrown in.
Stick to the culture, El-Decken says. After all, foreigners are not coming all this way to stay in rooms similar to what they have back home.
What his group hasn't changed over the last five years, though, is that they're always looking for new places to visit.
El-Decken's group – and other like it – won't replace the value of the main tourism sector.
But they are growing and attracting more locals and foreigners every day – not to mention inspiring other groups to form, all of which means a wider and richer experience for tourists in Egypt, whoever they may be.
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