Ayman wanted a job in tourism. But he did badly on his high-school language exams and spent two years at a school in Luxor, across the river from his village, struggling to master enough rudimentary English and German to get into the hotel school at Qina. His most vivid memory from his two years in Qina was the night when he and the other front-desk trainees played the role of guests in a restaurant for the final exam of the student waiters and cooks.

The meal began with soup. He burned his mouth on the first spoonful and it was cleared away before it had cooled enough for him to eat it. Next was “Russian salad,” containing raw egg which made him choke on the first mouthful. Silverware was brought and taken away faster than he could figure out how to use it. The main course was veal too tough to cut with a knife but which they were not allowed to pick up with their hands. The desserts looked appealing but there were not enough to go around. The meal ended without him having eaten a thing. Back at his parents’ house in the village, without a job or a future, he told and retold this story. Life was a meal you never got to eat.

Ayman’s father, a guard in the Pharaonic tombs, is nearly crippled with chronic asthma caused by dust from the tombs and a cigarette addiction. His wages of 100 Egyptian pounds per month (about a $1 a day) barely cover cigarettes and medicine. Ayman’s younger brother, also out of work, carves Pharaonic stone motifs to sell to the alabaster factories, as the shops are called, on the main road where tourist buses stop.

The family is supported by Ayman’s mother, who raises rabbits, chickens, sheep and water buffalo. With the older children, she harvests sugarcane in winter for the large landowners, taking the stripped leaves for the buffalo to supplement the clover she grows on the family’s own half-acre. They are lucky still to own the land: In 1982, the World Bank drew up plans to convert their field into a parking area for tour buses. Fortunately, when the government implemented the plans it spared the field, although several other households lost land to tourist industry expansion.

Outside Development

Ayman’s difficulty in finding a tourism job is linked partly to the activities of Islamist groups. They do not operate around Luxor, where local religious leaders, popular sentiment and a pervasive secret police are strong enough to keep them out. But tourists have stayed away nonetheless, and hotel and tour operators responded by laying off unskilled workers — the easiest part of their budget to cut.

Tourists are returning, but difficulties will continue. [1] For one thing, tourism is a volatile industry. Before the Islamists there was an earthquake; before the earthquake there was the Gulf war; and before that the fire at the Heliopolis Sheraton, stretching back through the 1980s. But even if there were no more riots, earthquakes, killings, fires or wars, Ayman and others like him would still find it hard to benefit from the industry that surrounds them and affects far more than the relative few it employs. Ayman’s hamlet is one of about 20 communities opposite Luxor on the west bank of the Nile, where the majority of Luxor’s archaeological sites are located. Government decrees of 1976 and 1981 prohibit the building of hotels and other enterprises on the west bank, to preserve the touristic quality of the villages and Pharaonic sites. Building of any sort must be mud brick and is severely restricted. No new commercial or workshop licenses are issued. [2] Developing Luxor tourism has required the “de-development” of these villages.

The 1982 World Bank program, drawn up by the US consulting firm Arthur D. Little, suggested one or two remedies to these problems: a cooperative to improve the quality of homemade souvenirs, and the building of a new village to the north, which would ease the housing shortage but remove people even farther from the tourist industry. It would also remove them from their fields and other places of employment.

The consultants’ brief was to increase tourism revenue, from better visitor management (new roads, bus parks and other facilities) to increase the flow of tourists and from a new airport terminal, increased water and electric supplies, and other infrastructure to enable the development of luxury hotels and Nile cruise ships. Since there is a limit to the number of tourists who can be squeezed in and out of King Tut’s tomb each hour, income growth was to come from a shift toward wealthier tourists.

More than half of the Luxor development budget — $32.5 million out of a total of $59 million — was to be spent abroad, for foreign contractors, consultants and equipment. [3] The Egyptian government borrowed this $32.5 million from the World Bank. Following the usual practice, the development assistance is actually money paid by the Third World to the West. [4] The balance of incurred local costs was paid directly by the government. The major local construction project, building a new river embankment at Luxor, which might have employed local labor, was awarded to a military work force from China.

These investments generated a phenomenal growth in tourism. From 1982 to 1992, the number of visitors to Egypt and their estimated expenditures more than doubled. [5] In Luxor most of the growth, as planned, was in luxury hotels and cruise ships. Across the river, the few who had established small hotels or other tourist enterprises before the development ban was imposed did well. But for others, there was almost no way of breaking into the tourist business, except for the handful who found jobs as unskilled workers at below-subsistence wages in Luxor hotels. Half a dozen young men did better by marrying foreign tourists — usually much older women, who visit for a few weeks each winter and with luck are wealthy enough to set up the husband in business. One woman, an enterprising California divorcee named Happy, began to build a small hotel on the edge of the village before being stopped by the authorities.

Today the hotel stands half-finished. Most of the husbands settle for something less, such as an imported car to use as a tourist taxi. Cruising in their air-conditioned Peugeots, past those working in the sugarcane fields, these men underline the separation of the tourist world from the village.

Enclave Tourism

The World Bank’s program for Luxor tourism was designed to increase this separation. The Bank’s consultants conducted a survey in Luxor and reported that tourists’ biggest complaint was of being bothered continually by locals trying to take them somewhere or sell them something. The consultants recommended that no further peddler licenses be issued, and devised a visitor management scheme to minimize unregulated contact between tourists and the local community. Separate ferry and bus facilities were to be improved to isolate the movement of tourists from local traffic. An enclosed visitor center would have its own restaurant and shops. In Ayman’s village, plans called for an elevated walkway through the middle of the village so that tourists could cross from the bus park to the Pharaonic temple without setting foot in the village itself.

This kind of enclave tourism arrangement is now typical of tourist development in the Third World, required by the increasing disparity between the wealth of tourists and the poverty of the countries they visit. The Egyptian Ministry of Tourism appeals to foreign capitalists considering ventures in hotels or other enterprises in Egypt with the claim that investors are “enjoying outstanding profits in the tourism field,” thanks to easy repatriation and “labor costs that are more than competitive on a worldwide scale.” [6] The ministry calculates that each tourist spends on average $100 a day in Egypt — more than most hotel employees earn in a month. [7]

There is a larger reason for the creation of enclave tourism. As the industry becomes concentrated in the hands of luxury hotels, mostly under the management of American or European chains, managers seek to increase their profit by channeling more and more tourist expenditure within their own establishments. [8] The grand Egyptian hotels that used to provide little more than accommodation and a dining room have been replaced by complexes that offer three or four different restaurants, several bars, shopping arcades, a swimming pool and fitness club, cruises and excursions, business facilities, and evening lectures and entertainment. The Nile cruise ships and the walled “tourist villages,” popular where space is plentiful such as the Red Sea coast, are even more self-contained.

Except for a small and wealthy elite, the local population is excluded from these enclaves, kept out by the prices and the guards posted at the gate. The result is almost total segregation. Most Luxor tourists have no contact with the local street, except, perhaps, for occasions of brief shopping excursions in the Luxor bazaar or a five-minute walk from the cruise ship to an archaeological site through a village strip. These encounters become frenzied scenes in which local peddlers, merchants and entrepreneurs scurry to secure some small share of the tourist business.

Traveling Expenses

Driven by the plans of international hotel chains, this process of segregation is being further encouraged by Egyptian government and World Bank policy. In the 1980s the Bank directed Egyptian public funds into building the infrastructure for tourist development, with projects like the one in Luxor. In the 1990s the Bank began pushing for the profits from this public investment to be switched into private, and especially foreign, hands. Supported by Fu’ad Sultan, a former Egyptian banker appointed minister of tourism, the World Bank in 1992 paid the consultants Coopers and Lybrand Deloitte to draw up plans to sell off the country’s luxury hotels, managed by international hotel chains but still owned by the state.

Selling off state-owned assets is usually justified by the need to eliminate subsidized or inefficient enterprises. But the hotels are highly profitable, providing returns of up to 50 percent or more of revenue. [9] The consultants justified the proposed sale as a “flagship privatization,” a public relations venture to encourage the privatization process in general by offering lucrative assets for sale, so far mostly to corporate investors from Europe and the Gulf. [10] (The consultants also claimed that the sale would raise funds for further tourism development, but offered no analysis of the need for such funds or reasons why the lump sum from a sale was more beneficial than the annual income from assets held in perpetuity.) “Flagship privatization” follows the discredited model of Thatcherite Britain, where Coopers and Lybrand Deloitte gained their expertise. As the consultants acknowledged, again based on British experience, the investors may enjoy prospects for windfall profits from the future resale of grossly undervalued properties. [11]

Increased control by international capital will send not just the profits abroad, but tourist expenditure in general. Increasing international integration of the tourist industry decreases the proportion of tourist expenditure that remains in the host country. [12] The integration of the hotel industry is being followed by that of the tour operators. [13] Those who purchase these assets, moreover, increase the pressure on local managers to build their share of a limited market, intensifying the segregation of tourists within their luxury enclaves. For Ayman and his fellow villagers, both developments are likely to decrease the proportion of tourism income available to the local community.

Mode of Consumption

A conventional industry, whether in manufacturing or agriculture, involves organizing people to produce. Mass production relies upon all the well-known methods of recruiting and disciplining a work force, organizing their use of time, their movement and their arrangement in physical space, and developing systems of instruction, supervision and management.

Mass tourism, by contrast, involves organizing people to consume, although it relies upon similar methods of managing, instructing and supervising to maximize the process of consumption. Tourism is usually defined, from the tourist’s point of view, as a form of leisure, in contrast to work. It is better seen as a particular form of capitalist industry, organized around the maximization not of production but consumption and not of individual goods but of a more complex commodity-experiences. No object of capitalist consumption is ever just a thing. One pays not just for food, clothing or cars, but for a certain taste, lifestyle or experience that the thing signifies. With tourism, this consumption of signification is taken to the extreme. The tourist industry sells not individual objects but entire worlds of experience and meaning.

In Luxor, the tourism experience is created out of archaeological sites, but also by organizing the contemporary society to appear as a reflection and extension of the past. The 1982 World Bank report on visitor management explained that “the creation of an overall environment is needed on the west bank [of the Nile] in order for Luxor to reach its full market potential.” [14] Although very few west bank residents were to be directly employed in tourism, all were inevitably part of the overall environment of donkeys and horse-drawn carts, mud brick houses and peasant ways — a life scarcely changed in the last 5,000 years, as a popular American study of the area published at the same time actually claimed. [15]

In 1981, half a million tourists visited Luxor and each stayed for an average of only 2.1 nights. Today the number of visitors in a good year has more than doubled, but the average length of stay has declined. [16] The local tourist industry has less than 48 hours to maximize the tourist’s consumption. This requires a meticulous planning of meals, drinks, sleeping and entertainment, plus the requisite trips to the Karnak and Luxor temples, the sound and light show, the felucca ride, the Luxor bazaar, plus King Tut’s tomb and other sundry tombs and temples of the Theban necropolis across the river.

This mass production of experience produces a curious common interest between tourism’s over-organized consumers and some of the local community. In the 1982 World Bank survey, alongside the complaint about the behavior of peddlers and local merchants, the most frequent tourist request was for more meaningful contact with the local population. Many tourists to Luxor are anxious to meet “real Egyptians.” Many of the local population, interested in diverting tourist expenditure in their direction, are keen to help. Ayman’s aunt, for example, has a house directly in front of the parking area for buses. Her children hang around, out of sight of the tour guides, and catch the eye of tourists lagging behind the main group as it heads off towards the temple. They then invite them into the house to watch their mother baking bread at an earthen oven. In exchange, the kids expect a tip of a pound or so.

Another Place, Another Restaurant

The Luxor region is not necessarily typical of Third World tourism, or even of Egypt. The industry takes different forms in different places. But patterns are similar from place to place. In Egypt, antiquities-based tourism is concentrated in Upper Egypt and Cairo, and draws foreign tourists primarily from North America, Europe and East Asia (as well as domestic tourists and busloads of local children on school trips). Domestic tourism, traditionally centered on Alexandria, has now expanded along the entire Mediterranean coast. The Red Sea region, offering beaches, diving and windsurfing, is marketed locally and in Europe and Israel.

Cairo is a growing center for conference and business travel, but its largest market consists of Arab visitors from the Gulf — a market so big that summer has become Egypt’s peak tourist season. The city’s five-star hotels have become another kind of tourist enclave. The gambling casinos, the hotels’ most profitable venues, are legally off limits to Egyptians, creating little zones of extra-territoriality within the heart of the capital city. To enter the gambling hall one has to show a passport.

Another kind of enclave has been created in response to the actions of the Islamist groups. To deflect the image abroad of Egypt as a terror-ridden place too dangerous to visit, the tourism ministry and tour operators began a marketing campaign for resorts of Sinai and the Red Sea coast making no reference to the fact that they are in Egypt. “Business is booming…we are expanding the hotel,” reported a satisfied European hotel manager in Sharm al-Sheikh. “Most of the tourists who come here are under the impression that they are coming to some separate entity called Sinai, which has nothing to do with the rest of Egypt.” [17]

With the new Red Sea resorts far less affected by the political violence of 1992-1994, many people from the Luxor region have sought jobs there. Ayman went looking for work in Hurghada, the resort on the mainland coast. So, too, did Happy, the California divorcee, and her husband from the village.

Ayman managed to get himself a job in a small hotel. At first he was employed to clean the rooms, earning 85 pounds a month (about $26). It was filthy work, he said, the kind of thing no person from his village would normally do. He started to smoke, and half of his pay went to cigarettes. Within a few weeks he managed to get the front desk job, work for which he was trained. But he found that nothing he had learned at hotel school applied. He had been taught that the customer is always right. If, for example, the room a guest had reserved is unavailable, you give him a better room at that same price. At his hotel, there was only one better room, with air conditioning. The hotel owner liked to use that room for himself and was so annoyed with Ayman for giving it to low-paying guests that he fired him. “It’s no good being honest,” Ayman said, back in the village, “In the tourist business you have to be tricky. I went to Hurghada with a hundred pounds in my pocket. I came home with seven.”

Happy opened a small restaurant on the main shopping street of Hurghada. She chose an American menu, featuring several kinds of hamburgers, and called the place Happy’s. It attracted the town’s European tourists and, with the American navy putting into Hurghada after the Gulf war, a steady stream of US military personnel. Leaving her husband in charge of the place, Happy is making a nice return on her investment.

Author’s Note: The author wishes to thank Rania Fahmy for research assistance and Lila Abu-Lughod for sharing research notes. The names of people in the village have been changed to protect their identity.


[1] During the first half of 1995, the number of tourists to Egypt increased by about 24 percent over the same period in 1994. Financial Times, July 21, 1995.
[2] Arthur D. Little et al, Study on Visitor Management and Associated Investments on the West Bank of the Nile at Luxor (Washington, DC: World Bank, April 1992), p. VIII-9.
[3] World Bank, “Staff Appraisal Report: Arab Republic of Egypt Tourism Project” [mimeo], April 26, 1979, pp. 19-22.
[4] See Tim Mitchell, “America’s Egypt: Discourse of the Development Industry,” Middle East Report 169 (March-April 1991), pp. 18-36.
[5] Egyptian Ministry of Tourism, Development Authority, Information Management Department, 1992 Tourism Data Bulletin, January 1993.
[6] Egyptian Ministry of Tourism, “Taba Touristic Development Company” [mimeo], Cairo, 1991, pp. 54-55.
[7] Egypt: Profile of a Market in Transition (Geneva: Business International, 1989), p. 75 .
[8] See Tilman G. Freitag, “Enclave Tourism Development: For Whom the Benefits Roll?” Annals of Tourism Research (1994), pp. 538-553.
[9] Coopers and Lybrand Deloitte, “Egyptian Hotels Privatisation Study: Interim Report” [mimeo], June 19, 1991. The management companies typically take 15-20 percent of profit.
[10] Coopers and Lybrand Deloitte, “The World Bank-Egypt Privatisation: Private Sector Financial Operations Group: Privatisation of Hotels in Egypt: Technical Proposal for Consulting Services” [mimeo], London, October 1990.
[11] The scale of private profit is staggering, the latest British example being a public utility company, the South Western Electricity Board, which the Thatcher government sold in 1990 for 400 million pounds. After paying themselves “bloated salaries and share options” for five years, in July 1995 the Board directors were considering selling the industry to a US giant, the Southern Company, for more than 1 billion pounds. The Observer, July 16, 1995.
[12] John Urry, The Tourist Gaze: Leisure and Travel in Contemporary Societies (London: Sage, 1990), p. 64. Studies of the exact proportion of tourist expenditure that remains in the host country are inconclusive, in part because circumstances differ dramatically from one economy to the next. E. Philip English, The Great Escape? An Examination of North-South Tourism (Ottawa: The North-South Institute, 1986), pp. 17-45. Another reason is because the very nature of the industry, organized around the consumption of experience, makes conventional economic measurement impossible.
[13] In Britain, for example, three companies (the largest of which was Canadian-owned) control 60 percent of the tour industry. The Observer, July 16, 1995.
[14] Arthur D. Little, Study on Visitor Management, p. VII-9 [emphasis added].
[15] See Tim Mitchell, “The Invention and Reinvention of the Egyptian Peasant,” International Journal of Middle East Studies 22 (1990).
[16] Arthur D. Little, Study on Visitor Management, p. VIII-2; Government of Egypt, 1992 Tourism Data Bulletin. Since 1981 the average visitor length of stay has declined steadily for Egypt as a whole, except for a sudden increase in 1986-1988 caused largely by long-stay summer tourists from the Gulf, very few of whom visit Luxor.
[17] New York Times, October 21, 1993.

How to cite this article:

Timothy Mitchell "Worlds Apart," Middle East Report 196 (September/October 1995).

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