Last Out, First In

Five weeks since I blogged. It’s a new world.

Tunisia was amazing. Egypt is astounding. Bahrain boggles the imagination. Libya is off the scale. At the time of writing, none of those 4 revolutions is resolved. And there is also Yemen, Algeria, Morocco, even – staggeringly – Syria. Of a different character, but no less significant in their own way, are protests in Jordan and Oman, government handouts in Kuwait and Saudi Arabia, and even baby-steps towards parliamentary elections in the UAE. Lebanon, Iraq, Palestine and Israel may be fairly said to have their own concerns right now. That only leaves Qatar. Nuff said.

Anyone who’s been following me on Twitter will know that I’ve been trying to keep on top of the changing situations across the region day by day, which is a full-time job in itself. But this is a tourism blog, not a news digest – and I’ve held off from blogging travel titbits, since just about the only noteworthy tourism issues arising so far from these multiple revolutions have focused on less-than-gripping tales of Western governments’ efforts to repatriate their stranded citizens.

But the role of tourism in all this has increasingly felt rather seedy to me. Throughout the Egyptian revolution, governments and the travel industry kept on maintaining that Sharm and the Red Sea resorts were completely safe and unaffected by the upheavals in Cairo and around the rest of the country. Two British travel writers – who I won’t name, for their sakes – were flown into Sharm during the protests to ‘experience’ a luxury hotel. They did a bit of desert touring, tweeted about how peaceful it all was, and took some vox pops (which, unsurprisingly, were all about wanting to encourage tourists back – and this was before Mubarak had resigned).

That shocked me. It highlighted just how detached Egyptian tourism had become from Egyptian life. While people from all sectors of society, in all parts of the country, were engaging in serious political action – perhaps for the first time in their lives – all some Westerners seemed to care about was their ‘right’ to relax on the beach. The industrialised mass tourism which Sharm (and other places) specialise in filters virtually no money back to the communities which host it: a huge proportion of the cash spent on a typical Sharm holiday remains either outside Egypt altogether, or in the hands of inbound tourism conglomerates controlled by the kind of tycoons Mubarak’s regime favoured. People don’t go to Sharm, or Taba, or Hurghada, or El Gouna, or Marsa Alam, or any of Egypt’s other chiefly purpose-built seaside resorts in order to engage with Egyptian culture, or to enjoy a characteristically Egyptian beachfront scene. Most of these places didn’t even exist before mass tourism anyway; there often *is* no local “scene” other than tourism. People go because it’s sunny, cheap and you can fly there directly.

Is that bad? Well, since you’re asking me, yes it is bad – but some people like that sort of disconnect. What got my goat was that such disconnects enable Mr & Mrs Westerner to lie on sunloungers being served cocktails by Mr Egyptian, even while Mr Egyptian’s country is in flames as society is being completely reshaped by events a few hours’ drive away – and that Mr & Mrs Westerner are able to feel good about it because they are ‘supporting’ a vital plank of Egypt’s economy by not cancelling their holiday. Airlines and holiday firms kept on flying tourists into Egypt throughout the revolution.

That’s wrong. That’s a moral problem. If your tourism doesn’t allow your hosts to retain their dignity, you need to change your tourism. Dignity comes through income, sure. But nobody – in the UK anyway – seemed to relate industry calls for continued tourism to noses in troughs. At no point did the UK government advise its citizens not to go on holiday to Egypt (if it had done, then the rules on insurance reimbursement would have changed, whereupon the travel industry could have pulled out without losing money). I might be naive, but that is a failing of British foreign policy. Equally, the travel industry’s current reliance on Foreign Office travel advice benefits insurers (and reinsurers), not the industry – and certainly not holidaymakers.

Looking ahead, Bahrain and Libya don’t have anything like the same level of tourism – but the last couple of days have seen violent protests in Oman, which has a flourishing and important tourism sector. If the violence there escalates, will we see the same thing – Westerners holed up in luxury hotels, pretending all is normal, while Omanis try to reshape their society around them? It’s hard to tell. One complicating factor is that, unlike in Egypt, in Oman tourism is concentrated in the capital.

Globally, tourism is dangerously close to getting too big for its boots. It seems to enjoy being last out – only halting altogether under extreme duress – and, above all, being first back in, even while the last stones are being placed on fresh graves. That’s topsy-turvy. When people are trying to grasp political power previously denied to them, holidays become unimportant. They should stop. We should stop them.