July 15, 2024

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As Egyptian tourism recovers, tour guides mobilise for better conditions

Cairo’s blinding summer sun seems not to put off the thousands of tourists who visit the pyramids under June’s blistering heat. Although the highest influx of visitors is expected over the last winter months of the year, tour guides can already foresee a strong season just by looking at last year’s numbers. Despite ongoing regional turmoil – especially Israel’s bombardment of Gaza, less than 320km away from Cairo – Egypt received around 14.9m tourists in 2023, its highest level since 2010.

While tour guides hope that 2024 will be similarly busy, this year they are also mobilising for better pay and conditions.

The Egyptian Center for Economic and Social Rights tells African Business that tour guides “are seeking to hold elections to have their own council and real representation as they fight not only with the state but also with the big tourism companies that are using them and making their situation miserable”.

They received a boost from a recent court ruling that potentially benefits up to 16,000 tour guides. It affirmed the right of tour guides to form a council, effectively removing a government-appointed committee from the Ministry of Tourism that many felt did not adequately represent their interests.

“It allows them to elect a committee able to protect their rights, to raise their demands and place these in front of the ministry and big companies,” says lawyer Malik Adly, who has been working with the Egyptian Center for Economic and Social Rights to support tour guides in their legal battle.

Experts say the decision allows guides to push to work independently of agencies and companies while pressuring them to offer fair salaries and conditions.

Rising economic importance sparks more investment

The tourism sector is one of the pillars of the Egyptian economy. It represents a crucial contribution to the country’s GDP, Adla Ragab, director of the Center for Economic and Financial Research and Studies at Cairo University, tells African Business. In total it contributes 12.8% of the economy.

Ragab, who served as first vice minister of tourism from 2017 to 2018, says that the sector serves as a major source of foreign exchange earnings.

“Over the last five decades, tourism revenue has consistently represented an average of 33% of service exports and around 17% of total exports. This indicates that tourism helps alleviate trade balance imbalances, contributing to a reduction in the deficit and an increase in the surplus.”

As the industry continues to recover from the nightmare of Covid-19 – which led to a staggering 72% decline in tourist arrivals – the government has promised investment and targeted 30m tourists yearly by 2028.

“This administration is keen to use mega-projects and new infrastructure to serve tourism and this was well presented by World Economic Forum indicators – as Egypt is ranked sixth for prioritisation of tourism by government,” adds Ragab.

One of these mega-projects is the Ras El-Hekma deal signed with the UAE, which aims to transform one of Egypt’s coastal towns into a luxury Mediterranean resort.

Traditional attractions are also set to receive fresh investment and projects. On 31 December the State Information Service announced that 2024 would witness more investment in the preservation of antiquities, as the Grand Egyptian Museum finally opens its doors. At the African Tourism Forum held in Sharm El-Sheikh in May, Ahmed Issa, Egypt’s minister of tourism and antiquities, emphasised the importance of coordinating policies to maximise shared interests and enhance intra-African tourism. 

An unequal industry

But despite gains in the tourism sector under the new administration, those at the bottom of the industry have barely seen changes in their situation with the passing of time. Guides say that their income remains precarious despite the industry-wide recovery.

Ibrahim has been a tour guide since 1991. He says that, back then, tour guides were already at the mercy of big agencies and companies that seldom respect the minimum wage stipulated by law. “They never paid me the official minimum wage, and if I complained they would replace me with someone else who would accept working for such low wages,” he says. (We have changed his name at his request.)

While often praised by visitors who enjoy his knowledgeable, history-rich tours, Ibrahim, like other tour guides, is often unable to work independently of the major agencies and set their own prices.

A court ruling that sought to liberalise the market in 2023 was appealed by the government – under pressure from corporations and the Ministry of Tourism, the Egyptian Center for Economic and Social Rights claims.

Farouk Thabet, the tour guide who filed the case that resulted in the court victory that allows guides to elect their council, says that “the absence of an elected board has led to a loss of access to any privileges and gains from tourism developments in Egypt.”

“All the battles I am going through are because of my children,” Farouk says. “I do not have health insurance, nor union services, and my pension for when I retire is about 2,000 Egyptian pounds [$41].” Despite long and physically-demanding careers, agencies and companies are not obliged to provide insurance packages to their workers.

Ibrahim, whose voice sounds rusty and dry after 33 years of guiding, says that workers want a government and trade unions that are responsive to their needs.

As Egypt prepares to see its tourism sector recover from recent years’ crises and rise exponentially – with prospects for this year suggesting a 30% increase in international tourist arrivals – economists and legal experts warn that the country will not reap the benefits completely unless tour guides’ rights are respected.

A risk to industry growth

“The growing ties with Africa provide an important route towards exploiting the potential of the tourism sector,” Abeer Elshennawy, professor at the economics department of the American University in Cairo, tells African Business. However, he warns, “as in any other sector, if workers’ rights are not protected, productivity will be lower.”

“If you want to invest in something you have to invest first in your people, not in stones,” says lawyer Malik Adly, who has been working with the Egyptian Center of Economic and Social Rights to support tour guides in their legal battle.

“In its investments, the government should seek what is good for the people and not for big multinational companies,” he adds.

Following the court battle, tour guides have hopes that they may have turned a corner. Farouk is optimistic that his legal activism will pave the way for an improvement of his colleagues’ conditions and help the industry overall to thrive well into the future.

“The tour guide is one of the pillars of tourism in Egypt and of its successes,” he says. “The guide is a reflection of Egyptian society and civilisation in the eyes of the tourist.”