Tourist destinations are never simply reducible to the sun, sand and sea they offer. The lucrative international trade associated with Third World tourism involves packaging and marketing areas of the world that are most devastated by contemporary economic conditions, essentially creating landscapes of paradise out of realities of poverty. The case of Dahab, a small coastal town in South Sinai, Egypt, offers an example of the processes and power dynamics involved in the production of tourist spaces. What are the political, economic, cultural and moral forces that shape Dahab? Who are the players involved in shaping this local site of tourism, and what are the interests at stake?

My initial curiosity about Dahab was sparked by its almost illicit reputation among both foreign tourists and Egyptians. I first arrived in Egypt in 1997 amidst a heavily publicized media campaign connecting the alleged devil worship of a group of Egyptian youth with their visits to Dahab, supposedly the primary meeting place for their rituals and escapades. [1] Many Egyptians I spoke to associated Dahab with drugs, nudity, promiscuity and a range of “evils” infiltrating Egypt from the West. Numerous tourists complained to me about Dahab’s irredeemably “un-Egyptian” character. My guide book referred to Dahab as “a kind of Goa by the Red Sea,” and included a section entitled, “Drug Smuggling and Cultivation in Sinai” within the chapter on Dahab.

If lazing on the beach, stoned, is your idea of heaven [Dahab] is the place to be. The music and ambience reek of the 1960s, when Israeli troops starting coming here for R&R, introducing the Bedouin to another way of life. Nowadays, the real Bedouin village of tin shacks and scrawny goats hides behind scores of restaurants and campgrounds, while local children wander beneath the palm trees selling culottes and camel rides. Visitors either stay longer than they expected (sometimes until their money or brain cells are gone) or find the whole scene so repellent that they leave immediately. [2]

While another guide book admits that Dahab’s reputation as a “drug-infested hippie hangout” might be somewhat unfair, it remains unclear why these views of Dahab enjoy such widespread currency. [3] Drug use and sexual activity occur in all sectors of Egypt’s tourism industry. Why is Dahab so easily branded with an illicit reputation?

The Transformation of Dahab

Like so many other tourism communities in Sinai, Dahab has undergone striking demographic transformation in the two decades since Egypt repossessed the peninsula from Israeli occupation. National tourism initiatives during this period have resulted in both the increasing marginalization of the native Bedouin population from the economic opportunities associated with the industry, as well as their removal from the valuable seaside properties which now serve as the center of tourism activities. While the development of tourism in Dahab has excluded the Bedouin from both the economy and spaces of tourism, the industry simultaneously depends upon the (contained) presence of Bedouin whose “culture” and “hospitality” are central components of the tourist experience in Sinai. After all, what would a “Bedouin village” be without any Bedouin? In conjunction with these developments, Dahab has witnessed a dramatic influx of generally young and primarily single Egyptian men migrating from the mainland in search of better economic prospects. It is these young men who compose the bulk of the labor pool that now serves the local tourism industry.

In contrast to Sharm al-Shaykh, which boasts numerous luxury establishments and draws a relatively wealthy range of tourists, Dahab is a small, laid-back “Bedouin village” offering budget accommodations and leisurely beach front cafés. While multinational hotels and enterprises in other Egyptian tourism sites enjoy virtual monopolies, the local industry in Dahab is primarily composed of a range of smaller Bedouin- and Egyptian-owned establishments which generally cater to younger and less affluent tourists. Furthermore, in contrast to other segments of the Egyptian tourism industry, there are extremely high levels of informal interaction between tourists and local tourism providers in Dahab. Tourists informally arrange for many of their needs, including accommodation, transportation, meals and excursions, through their daily interactions with individual Egyptians. In Dahab most men juggle and subsidize their formal employment with a range of informal endeavors, and for many, informal methods of entering into transactions with tourists represent the only avenue for subsistence during long searches for formal employment.

In an industry monopolized by multinational corporations geared towards “package tourists,” these informal developments have led to intensive state intervention aimed at policing the transactions involved in the tourism economy. This policing is now concerned with imposing a more formal and “respectable” face on tourism in Dahab — mandating licenses for transporting or guiding tourists, crackdowns on insufficient permits and health code violations among small restaurants and merchants and state inspections of a range of establishments, often resulting in fines or requirements to make costly (and often purely aesthetic) renovations. In many cases, transforming Dahab into a “respectable” site of tourism essentially entails forcing smaller businesses and self-employed individuals to incur heavy costs and restrictions in an attempt to live up to standards set by some of the new (and larger) business ventures now invested in Dahab.

Local state structures not only exert a great deal of energy in regulating the economic transactions involved in the industry, but also make systematic attempts at policing general interactions between local Egyptians and foreign tourists. One of the primary targets for state intervention is the widespread prevalence of intimate relations between Egyptian men and female tourists. Many of the men I knew in Dahab either were, or at some point had been, involved with a tourist, and there are a substantial number of foreign women who visit Dahab regularly in pursuit of relationships with Egyptian men. Of most interest is not the fact that such relations exist, or even that they are so common, but rather that local police units allocate so much of their time and resources to policing these activities. For an Egyptian man in Dahab, getting involved or openly interacting with foreign women outside the strict boundaries of providing tourism services practically ensures police harassment. Men that choose to pursue these relationships do so with extreme caution and discretion.

Surveillance Discrepancies

According to Egyptian law, it is illegal for an Egyptian man to occupy a camp or hotel room with a woman who is not his wife. I heard quite a few firsthand stories of police staking out camp rooms to snare such “illicit” couples and arrest the Egyptian man (police do not enjoy jurisdiction over the sexual behavior of non-Egyptians). One British woman told me how she and her Egyptian husband decided to draw up a marriage contract after the police had broken down their camp room door and arrested him. [4] Men simply walking in the street with foreign women can be picked up by police for questioning or detainment. The range of state initiatives touted as the maintenance of “security” — almost exclusively meaning the protection of foreign tourists — are ultimately intended to police sexual behavior.

It is instructive to examine why such intense and aggressive police activity is not imposed on other Egyptian sexual contexts. For example, why has there not been a similar crackdown on prostitution between Egyptian women and foreign male tourists in Cairo, particularly the sex tourism of Gulf Arabs? One important factor in this discrepancy is that the Egyptians involved in sex tourism in Dahab are men, and the result is a disturbing emasculation which strikes a national chord. [5] It is not only this gender inversion which instigates such rampant police activity, but also the fact that these relationships do not figure into larger tourism initiatives. The sex tourism of Gulf Arabs in Egypt accounts for a mere portion of the over one million Arab tourist visits per year, the majority of which are from Saudi Arabia and Kuwait. Gulf Arab tourist revenues are considerable and continue to increase. Neither the tourism industry nor the Egyptian economy stand to benefit significantly from the relationships between Egyptian men and foreign women that predominate in Dahab. [6] The low purchasing power of backpackers, young “budget” travelers and “hippies” visiting Dahab makes them among the most undesirable of Egypt’s tourists. Hence, the state is more willing to police and intervene in their interactions and behavior.

In many Third World tourist destinations, young men working at the informal peripheries of the tourism industry are often subjected to such policing. [7] These men not only come to represent sexual promiscuity to the state, but they also serve as bearers of a range of social ills perceived to be infiltrating the nation as a result of the tourism industry, including dishonesty, theft, drug use, imitations of “Western” behavior and general moral decay. They embody these perceived negative effects of international tourism, and are targeted as threats to the “successful” development of a local tourism industry. In the case of Dahab at least, we see that the Egyptian state is in fact systematically sexualizing these men in an effort to exclude them from a range of interactions involved in tourism.

Economic Exclusion

In Egypt, I heard several references to the khirtis of Cairo — men who hang around Tahrir Square and other tourist areas offering their assistance as guides or directing tourists to particular bazaars where they later receive commissions on subsequent purchases. These men are not affiliated with any formal businesses aside from the agreements regarding commissions. They generally have a bad reputation, are perceived as trying to imitate foreigners in their dress and behavior (particularly sexual behavior) and are often targeted in attempts to protect tourists from getting “cheated” or “taken advantage of.” Individuals working in the informal peripheries of the industry are thus assigned illicit reputations and are then disciplined accordingly by state mechanisms. Ultimately, such efforts result in limiting these men’s access to the economic opportunities tourism offers.

These processes of exclusion from the economic benefits of tourism do not occur only at the individual level, but are also directed at entire segments of the industry. When I asked a friend about khirtis in Dahab, he responded that there were none because everyone engages in informal transactions there. It seemed that Dahab itself was the khirti: Just as the state attempts to eliminate contact between particular men and foreigners by branding the men with unseemly labels, entire spaces like Dahab can be sexualized and afforded an illicit reputation which further marginalizes it into the peripheries of the tourism industry. The state and the larger industry in Egypt generally frown upon Dahab because it dramatically departs from national visions of successful tourism, modeled mostly on the large multinational enterprises in other locations. The small struggling establishments and the “informality” of many transactions in Dahab make it a far less attractive example of tourism development.

The state also denigrates the “undesirable” tourists Dahab lures because they tend to stay for longer visits and spend relatively little money. In contrast to the majority of “package tourists” and those making their arrangements through large hotels or other formal establishments, the tourists in Dahab usually are served through a range of informal interactions with individual producers and service providers. Ironically, in this relatively informal and “local” sphere of the industry, a larger percentage of tourism revenue remains within Egypt: less money leaks out of the country through the profits of multinational corporations or the returns on foreign investments. This revenue is also distributed more directly and equitably to those individuals whose labor sustains tourism. A tourist staying in a small Egyptian- or Bedouin-owned camp in Dahab, eating and drinking in local cafés and restaurants, buying items from vendors rather than in hotel gift shops, catching a random taxi instead of formally arranged transport and hiring an informal guide as opposed to excursions through large agencies will, no matter how much money is spent, leave a larger proportion of it in the hands of producers and service providers.

The moral and sexual policing of Dahab ultimately serves to protect the interests of powerful multinational sectors of Egypt’s tourism industry that continue to profit from exclusionary developments, such as those in Sharm al-Shaykh. In the guise of protecting national values, the state directs tourist revenue away from small businesses and independent operators, and sharply limits the benefits of burgeoning tourism to ordinary Egyptians.


[1] In Ramadan of 1999, a very popular Egyptian soap opera called Imra’a min Zaman al-Hubb featured a young male character whose friends lead him into devil worship. When the teenager’s brother suggests that the family send him to work in Sinai to escape his friend’s influence, their uncle forbids it because Sinai’s corruption with drugs and loose morals is so well-known.
[2] Dan Richardson, Egypt: The Rough Guide (London: Rough Guide, 1996), pp. 561-562.
[3] Andrew Humphreys, ed., The Lonely Planet Guide to Egypt, 5th ed. (Australia: Lonely Planet Publications, 1999), p. 492.
[4] These restrictions and intense surveillance have resulted in the popularity of drawing up marriage contracts (“paper marriages”) for the purpose of obtaining accommodation and avoiding difficulties with police.
[5] Paulla Ebron found a similar dynamic at work in the Gambia where the tourism industry gained international notoriety due to the prevalence of European female travelers seeking young male Gambians for sexual relationships. “When powerful Northern women are thought to be stalking junior Southern men, a disturbing gender inversion has occurred. Gambian men are feminized. National honor and masculinity are jeopardized.” Paulla Ebron, “Traffic in Men,” in Maria Grosz-Ngate and Omari Kokole, eds., Gendered Encounters: Challenging Cultural Boundaries and Social Hierarchies in Africa (New York: Routledge, 1997), p. 227.
[6] Karim el-Gawhary, “Sex Tourism in Cairo,” Middle East Report 195 (September-October 1995), p. 2.
[7] For example, Malcolm Crick found that in Kandy, Sri Lanka the young (usually teenage) informal guides (referred to as “touts”) who worked the streets in the hopes of securing temporary employment, were identified as the biggest hindrance to the development of tourism by both state authorities and larger business owners, and were regularly arrested and detained under the premise of a vagrancy ordinance. In quite a few sites of international tourism, social scientists have noted the prevalence of “bumpsters” or “professional friends” who utilize a range of informal methods of instigating interactions and exchanges with tourists in the face of their marginalization and exclusion from the formal tourism industry.

How to cite this article:

Laleh Behbehanian "Policing the Illicit Peripheries of Egypt’s Tourism Industry," Middle East Report 216 (Fall 2000).

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