Our recent lecture on ethical tourism

Ma'at Tours was invited to present a paper at the inaugural Borders & Crossings inter-disciplinary conference on travel writing and tourism studies held at the University of Melbourne in July 2008 on the topic Aliens at the Pyramids: Western Tourists in Egypt. We were also invited to present at the associated Melbourne Festival of Travel Writing.



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'Aliens at the Pyramids':

Western Tourists in Egypt



Ma'at Tours organises and leads annual educational tours of Egypt. Our participants are motivated by a desire to experience first-hand the wonders of ancient Egypt. They have little or no prior knowledge or understanding of the contemporary society that surround the ruins of Pharaonic Egypt. We invite our participants to move outside an 'air-con bubble of Western-likeness' and to experience and grow in understanding of modern Egypt and its people. How do we do so, and how do our tourists react? Is present-day Egypt - a developing, Muslim country - simply the inconvenient, foreign, 'dirty' and possibly dangerous vehicle that a Western traveller must endure to access the splendours of the past? You can travel back in time thousands of years in an Egyptian pyramid, temple or tomb but once you cross the threshold of a monument you are back in the real Egypt of today. What then is Egypt? Its glorious ancient past or a place in the present inhabited by people facing real, human problems? What do our participants take away from their Egyptian experience besides gigabytes of digital images of ruins and some exotic souvenirs? What are the ethical responsibilities of those leading others into the past?


'But is it real?'



The vast majority of the millions of Western tourists who visit the Arab republic of Egypt each year have little or no knowledge of the modern nation. Their desire to journey through the Land of the Pharaohs is driven by a longing to gaze upon the death mask of Tutankhamun, to see inside his tomb in the Valley of the Kings, to stand in awe at the foot of the Giza pyramids and the Sphinx, and to 'do' the temple of Ramesses II at Abu Simbel.

The Egypt of the Western mindset is an Egypt fashioned by coffee-table books containing images of lonely temples and colourful tombs, (with the odd local in native dress sometimes thrown in as an aid to scale). It is an Egypt based on Discovery and History channel programs featuring dramatic recreations, eminent Egyptologists and live camera linkups at various ancient monuments. The imagery and the commentary combine to form a mental view of Egypt - land of the Nile, land of pyramids and temples set in sweeping desert vistas. All one needs is a package tour promising all Egypt in 6 days or a backpack, and the dream of ancient wonders is yours!

Occasionally modern Egypt intrudes on the public consciousness of the West with headlines such as the terrible massacre at Deir el Bahri in 1997, and the Taba and Sharm el-Sheik bombs in 2004/5. Such terrorist atrocities frighten off many tourists, convincing them that no Arab Muslim country is safe, or cause others to delay their holiday plans. Few have the inclination to ponder the socio-political and religious fabric of modern Egypt that led to such events, nor to consider the relative stability and tolerance of Egyptian society.

Most recently Egypt has hit the international headlines with stories of strikes and protests over the rising price of basic foodstuffs.

Bread Queues, Luxor (April 2008)
(C) Jane Akshar's Luxor News Blog
Used with kind permission.


However, the deaths of some Egyptians in demonstrations does not hold the attention of the West for long. Shortages in the supply of government subsidized bread, huge hikes in the price of most stable foods, the fact that 20% of Egyptians live below the poverty line of $2 a day, and that 20% live just above it... Well, it's sad, and bad, but it really does not have anything to do with US, does it? And yet it is impossible to understand contemporary Egypt - with its tip-hungry tomb guards, pushy salesmen, con artists and beggars - without knowing that over 40% of the population worry about where their next meal will come from. Fear of hunger and starvation is an alien way of thinking for us - al'hamdu li'Allah (thanks be to God).

We believe that it is of critical importance that tour companies and operators adequately prepare their clients for the 'experience of Egypt' and provide them with opportunities to meaningfully interact with local people. Our company offers participants extensive information not just on packing and currency issues, but on matters such as: social 'do's' and 'don'ts' (not eating with your left hand is an obvious one, but not allowing the soles of your shoes to be seen is less obvious); expectations regarding behaviour at ancient sites; and some basic words in Arabic (like 'salam'/hello and 'shukran'/thankyou).

We encourage our participants to explore modern Egypt prior to their departure through such media as Egypt Today magazine, internet portals like Cairolive and on-line Egyptian and Middle Eastern newspapers. We also encourage our participants to read and reflect upon a code of ethics we have adapted from Tourism and the Third World (Manuel, McElroy & Smith , 1996).

Throughout the tour we encourage our participants to learn more about Islam via personal interactions with local Muslims. We feel that this is particularly important given current trends towards polarisation of opinions and views, and a general lack of understanding of authentic Muslim traditions and teachings.

As tour leaders we are keen to provide opportunities for our participants to develop a real understanding of contemporary Egypt and the issues that concern the Egyptian people, and provide opportunities for them to 'make a difference' in the lives of individuals. We use local businesses, individuals and agencies when in Egypt so that money we and our group spends contributes directly to the local economy and the economic welfare of local Egyptians, rather than multinational companies. For example we use Egyptian-owned and operated hotels, transport providers, restaurants and Guides... These people are our trusted friends and business partners, but more importantly they are real people with real families and real hopes, and needs, and dreams.

Members of our 2008 group offer pens to children on Elephantine Island


Because of our longstanding relationships with many locals we are able to arrange for our group to have meals in village homes on Elephantine Island. The women of the neighbourhood prepare meals for the group and receive all payments. Many of these women have been able to purchase second-hand sewing machines from these payments and now generate personal income from clothes making.

When visiting homes, villages and mosques we ask all our participants to dress according to local customs. This means long sleaves and trousers for all, and headscarfs for women. We explain to our female participants that such dress is a sign of respect to the community we are about to visit. The laughter of local women is shared by our female travellers as they are helped to adjust their scarfs: it is simple, intimate human contact that cannot be underestimated in its power to foster authentic understanding and mutual respect.

Ma'at Tours is a member of the Luxor4Care Organisation, a charitable group created by ex-pat Brits in Luxor. Luxor4Care works for abandoned and disadvantaged children in Luxor. In addition to publicising Luxor4Care throughout the Asia-Pacific region, we encourage our tour participants to meet local representatives of the organisation, to listen to their experiences of children and adults struggling to overcome terrible hardships, and offer an opportunity for those who wish to make donations of money, toys or clothing.

What do we hope that our participants take away with them from such experiences? I once asked an American women travelling with a 5-star tour company how she found the Egyptian people. She replied, 'They make terrible waiters - the ones on my Nile cruiser are very bad.' She was not joking.

Two participants on our last tour were comparing the price they had paid for the same souvenir. One had paid 10 pounds more than the other. 'Oh well, only 2 bucks, guess a family will have some meat tonight - chook [chicken] on the table,' she said. 'Chook on the table' has become one of our favourite sayings.

Once at sites in Egypt we and our local Guides can give our people detailed accounts of the history, architecture and art of the numerous tombs, temples and other wonderful structures we visit, but prior to setting out on our daily excursions we talk about social issues and cultural considerations related to particular sites or experiences that we are about to encounter.

Children at the Nobles Tombs, West Bank, Luxor


To know in advance that there will be children begging outside the tombs you are going to see is helpful, but to know why this is happening is both disquieting and empowering. While education is free in Egypt, uniforms, books and pens are not. If you don't have a pen you cannot write down the lesson or do the homework, and you not only fall behind in your schoolwork, but you get beaten by your teacher. But surely a pen only costs about $1? - yes, but in Egypt that's half a days income at the poverty line, or 100 pieces of government subsided bread - if the bakery has any flour in stock.

Such news is disturbing and thought provoking - yes, and unapologetically so. It is about real life and real people - the kids who will hassle you as you head into that glorious tomb you saw on NatGeo, and hassle you more when you come out. But perhaps such knowledge - and developing understanding - might lead you to pause and say 'salam' or share a smile, or even pen, with one of the urchins most tourists treat with utter contempt. The smile from a child like Hussan is - surely - more meaningful and valuable than that 'perfect photo' of the Giza pyramids at sunset.

Hussan from the West Bank, Luxor


The ruins of Egypt's pharaonic past do not lie in timeless, vacant desert vistas where none but doco camera crews dare to tread. They stand amid a vibrant, impoverished, modern, developing country and are surrounded by 75 million people with their own individual hopes, dreams and aspirations.

We are the aliens at the pyramid. It is we who go to Egypt, and it is we who are challenged to understand.

Ma'at Tours truly believe that it is the ethical responsibility of all those who lead others into the past to provide travellers with the information and opportunities they need - and deserve - to develop an authentic understanding of both ancient glories and modern cultures.