MADELEINE BRAND, host:

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Madeleine Brand.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

And I'm Steve Inskeep. Good morning. Some people are taking a fresher approach to a big business: tourism in Egypt. Well over 10 million people visited last year, many on tour buses and cruise ships. There's also, though, an emerging movement toward eco-travel. Small groups slip away into the desert and try to get a feel for the country away from the big tourist sights.

The movement is making connections to Egypt's Bedouins and other tribespeople. Here's the first of two reports from NPR's Cairo correspondent Peter Kenyon.

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Unidentified Woman: Once upon a time, there was a land where the sun was sacred.

PETER KENYON: If you've ever been part of the herded hordes ringing the Great Pyramids of Giza or wilted under the desert sun waiting for the previous tour group to vacate the underground tombs in Luxor's Valley of the Kings, you know that Egypt does tourism on a massive scale.

The financial stakes are enormous. Revenues of nearly $7 billion in 2005 soared to more than $10.5 billion in 2008. And if official figures are to be believed, the money will rise again this year, despite the economic downturn. Along the way, to make the visitors' experience more pleasant, shantytowns have been razed and poor villagers swept aside.

In late October, a few activists and businesspeople gathered with members of various Egyptian tribes in the remote southeastern desert to celebrate their heritage and traditions, and to explore ways of responsibly bringing people to the Egypt that package tour visitors never see.

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KENYON: It was the second annual Characters of Egypt festival, featuring Sinai Bedouins from the eastern hills, Nubian tribes from the south, and the far-flung tribes of the western desert, all the way to the Siwa Oasis near the Libyan border. It was a rare opportunity for the tribes to swap songs, stories, food and art, and to debate whether this new eco-travel movement could provide desperately needed jobs without forever changing their lives.

The head of Egypt's national parks, Mustafa Foudy, said that last concern is part of his job, to see that eco-tourism doesn't turn into a smaller version of mass tourism.

Mr. MUSTAFA FOUDY (Head of Egypt's National Parks): When you talk about eco-tourism, we are talking about responsible tourism, people that they come and gain experience by sitting with these local people. We train them to work as guides, to take these tourists to safari, for example, to act as bird-watchers, to help the tourists, whatever.

KENYON: So far, eco-tourism is a term that can have many definitions in Egypt, from expensive luxury eco-lodges, to primitive Bedouin-led desert treks. One of the founders of the tribal festival is Lynn Freiji, director of the Wadi Environmental Science Center.

In Freiji's opinion, too much well-intentioned effort these days is stuck on what she calls the handicrafts plateau: creating and marketing jewelry and carpets to tourists. She says the next step should be a sustainable travel sector that values the environment and relies on the knowledge and skills of those who live there.

Ms. LYNN FREIJI (Director, Wadi Environmental Science Center): The tribes are those that have protected the territories. Somehow, we tend to forget about them. These people need to be banked on. These men need to get to work. These fishermen need to be better integrated. These tribes who have the knowledge of the desert should be working hand-in-hand with tour operators.

KENYON: Freiji says there are a number of obstacles to get past, not least the deep mistrust between the government and the tribespeople, some of whom thrive on smuggling. Clashes, especially in the northern Sinai, are a regular occurrence. Each year, when she tries to organize the tribal festival, Freiji says she must bring a list of all those attending to the security forces five months in advance, and inevitably a number of names are struck from the list.

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KENYON: At the festival, Sinai Bedouin Mohammed Darwish Hamdan said without tourism, living conditions in the Sinai would be even worse than their current dismal state. But he said the heavy-handed tactics of the security forces make development impossible. He said the common procedure of rounding up relatives of a wanted man to force him to come forward is not only wrong, but disrespectful - a major sin in tribal culture.

Mr. MOHAMMED DARWISH HAMDAN (Sinai Bedouin): (Through translator) They have to respect the dignity of the Bedouin when they deal with us. And they have to offer us a chance to make a living. If someone does something wrong, okay, arrest that person. But don't seize innocent people for someone else's deed.

KENYON: In part two of this series, we'll look at what eco-tourism could mean for the remote western desert oasis of Dakhleh, near the southern end of Egypt's gorgeous and forbidding Great Sand Sea.

Peter Kenyon, NPR News, Cairo.

INSKEEP: Journalist Aya Batrawi provided material for this report.

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