The land that tourism forgot

The Broader Picture
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The Independent Culture
THE STILLNESS in these pictures is almost too painful to bear. The world's most valuable and spectacular tourist attractions, the Valley of the Kings in Luxor and the Pyramids of Giza outside Cairo, which have been attracting sightseers since the age of Herodotus, today stand deserted by the world.

Since the massacre of 60 foreign tourists last November, the majority of tour operators have still not returned to the country. The estimated 25 million Egyptians who make their living from the tourist industry - who between them put bread and falafel on the tables of nearly half of all Egyptians - have quite simply lost their income.

Ever since the first TV pictures of lamenting souvenir vendors in the weeks after the massacre, I have not quite been able to forget the situation in the empty souks of Luxor. Like many, I suspect, of the people who have toured the antiquities of Egypt, I used to find the whole tourist paraphernalia something of a nuisance.

Why, I asked myself, wouldn't those irritatingly persistent people trying to sell ancient coins and fake alabaster statuettes leave me alone? And who would buy those crumbling banana-leaf bits of "papyrus" or "authentic" mother- of-pearl jewellery boxes? Why, in fact, didn't they go and find proper jobs?

I suppose that I wanted to discov- er "my" Egypt alone. I wanted to trav-el in the same romantic mood of self- exploration as early-19th-century French travellers such as Chateaubriand or Lamartine. The locals and their trashy tourist souvenirs were needlessly cluttering up my noble landscape.

How sad, and how ironic. To judge by these pictures, I could probably get my wish if I went back to Egypt now. I could see the Temple of Karnak as Lamartine saw it. I could walk through the Valley of the Kings alone. I could perhaps see something that no one has seen in the whole of the 20th century - the Pyramids, undisturbed by other tourists.

Because now that there are no more customers, the apparatus of the tourist industry has collapsed. The touts, the camel-rides, the "pharonic" antiques, the postcard-sellers, the pyramid keyrings, the rip-off iced drinks, the over-solicitous taxi drivers - the whole tiresome hoopla of the tourist trade has gone.

Nice for those few tourists that can make it. Except that dodgy carpet sellers and the like actually represent the very life-blood of the country. Egypt without hoopla is not Egypt. Without tourists, the country that invented tourism is dying.