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In Photos: Visiting Egypt's Deserted Tourist Traps

Turmoil in Egypt has ruined the country's tourist industry. VICE News went to the pyramids, an empty Pharaonic Village, and a desolate zoo.
Photo by John Beck

“Four years ago, you couldn't see the ground for tourists,” Essam El Zawawy said as he gestured into the road outside the shop 10 feet from the main entrance to the Giza Pyramids where he works.

As he spoke, the street was deserted apart from a parked taxi and a couple of men drinking tea and smoking. “Then it was like a big party, like the crowds in Tahrir Square during the revolution,” he recalled, referring to the mass demonstrations in the central Cairo plaza which helped topple President Hosni Mubarak in 2011.


But the revolution gutted Egypt's tourist industry. Mubarak’s ouster was the start of a period of turmoil for the country that saw ongoing unrest, political instability, and the appointment — then subsequent removal by the military — of Mohamed Morsi, Egypt’s first democratically elected president. The new army-backed government then launched a crackdown against his supporters, killing hundreds and arresting many thousands more. Travel warnings followed from many countries, and vacationers stayed away.

Tourism accounted for more than 11 percent of Egypt’s GDP and for one out of every eight jobs, according to official figures. But by 2013, revenues had dropped from $12.5 billion in 2010 to $5.8 billion; visitor numbers fell from 14.7 million to 9.5 million over the same period. Tourism Minister Hisham Zaazou described last year as the worst in modern history.

And 2014 may be worse still. Visitor numbers have continued to decline over the past 12 months, and April saw a 22 percent drop in tourist numbers compared to the same time last year, the tourism ministry said.

Cairo, once the natural tourist destination of choice, became the focal point for most of Egypt's unrest and took the biggest hit as a result. The tourism ministry’s "pragmatic" plan to ignore the city when marketing Egypt to vacationers did not help. Those visitors who still ventured into the country tended to head to cheaper and more peaceful beach resorts such as Sharm el-Sheikh on the Red Sea.


In the capital, the impact is obvious. Only a trickle of visitors visit the famous Egyptian Museum, which is often surrounded by soldiers, police, and armored vehicles ready to prevent or disperse demonstrations in Tahrir Square next door. Tourist bazaars are empty but for despondent shop owners, while hawkers and touts are desperate, and hotels are empty apart from visiting businessmen and journalists.

The appointment of new president Abdel Fattah el-Sisi — the former armed forces head who toppled Morsi — and an apparent return to strongman rule has led some to hope for an increase in stability and subsequent boost in foreign visitors. For those with mouths to feed, civil rights are something of a luxury. “I have a business, I have family, and I'm afraid… I think Sisi will do something good for the country and everyone [tourists] will come back,” Zawawy says with obvious hope. “That's why I voted for him.”

Shops that once sold papyrus, perfumes, and tourist trinkets near the Giza pyramids are mostly closed. Business owners who remain offer to guide visitors through the area to supplement their vastly reduced incomes. All photos by John Beck.*

A man sleeping outside a disused shop and a closed hotel in a tourist area by the pyramids. Hawkers and guides far outnumber tourists both here and at the pyramids themselves.*

The pyramids themselves are almost deserted. Men and boys with horses and camels make up by far the biggest part of the crowd inside the complex. Some are resigned and subdued. Others are desperate and aggressive, coaxing tourists onto their animal for a photograph then not letting them down until demands for more and more money are met.*

Empty shelves where vendors used to sell their wares by the pyramid exit. A few still wait with a selection of trinkets for any visitors that pass. Some, less scrupulous, hawkers have started selling pieces of the pyramids.*

Camels sit by the pyramids waiting for people who might want to ride or take pictures with them. Zawawy said that before 2011 there were often too many visitors to cope with. “We would run from the tourists, we'd be so tired and wouldn't get off a horse or camel all day.”*

A few miles from the Giza pyramids, the Pharaonic Village promises to bring ancient Egypt to life. The attraction is centered round a sizable recreation of an ancient Egyptian settlement and also features a selection of small museums. This includes one dedicated to former president Anwar Sadat, which displays his toothbrush and hair oil.

Guide Ahmed Hosny told VICE News that the village had more than 300 employees before the revolution, but that now there were “200 some.” Whatever the figure, they vastly outnumbered guests. On a Friday, the busiest day of the week for the village, the only visitors for the English version of the tour to arrive within a half-hour wait were two Dutch tourists.


“Since the revolution, few people come, they’re scared,” Hosny said. He too, hopes that Sisi’s election will help restore some semblance of normality. “We have been suffering. With [the election of] Sisi all Egyptians hope this is the end [to the turmoil].”

A sign at the Pharaonic Village entrance which suggests there wasn't a huge number of visitors last month.*

The tour begins with a boat trip around the "village," which is situated on a small island in the Nile. A voiceover set to a soundtrack reminiscent of an atmospheric 1980s action-film trailer introduces statues of ancient Egyptian gods, a recreation of the baby Moses being found in the marshes, and actors re-enacting domestic and farming scenes.*

A man and a mannequin posed as ancient Egyptian painters. Actors also recreate various other arts and trades, including sculpting, stonemasonry, mummification, and beer- and wine-making. Each actor slowly repeats the same tasks for each tour group then undoes the work they just completed and starts again.*

The on-foot section of the tour begins with a small, but gaudy recreation of the Luxor Temple. The tour guides instructs visitors to ask permission to enter from an actor wearing a fake leopard skin who plays a high priest. The same actor doubled as a “poor man” in a subsequent section of the tour.*

Inside a reproduction of a wealthy ancient Egyptian's house, his “wife” sits in an alcove wearing a paper crown.*

Giza Zoo also markets itself to visiting tourists, although there were none to be seen on one recent weekend. This has a major impact on its income as foreigners pay more than six times as much as Egyptians for entrance.

The zoo is close to both Cairo University, where there have been frequent clashes between protesters and security forces, and Nahda Square, location of a large protest camp of Morsi supporters last summer before security forces moved in to disperse it, killing scores.

The state-run zoo was in the news late last year after local media reported that a giraffe there committed suicide (staff say it was an accident). Three black bears died in May under unknown circumstance in what management called a bear "riot.” Employees converge on visitors clutching books of photos and ancient cameras offering them the chance to have their picture taken with a baby lion.

A camel eating a piece of carrot from an Egyptian boy's head. Zoo staff offer families photo opportunities in the hope of receiving tips.*

A closed-up ticket booth with a red handprint. Parts of the zoo are closed off or in disrepair.*

A boy stands in front of horror masks at the zoo's market section. The shops selling souvenir items have few customers and a number of cafes and restaurants are closed.*

A man sits in a rest area surrounded by rubbish. The zoo is frequented by Egyptians who pay a fraction of the price charged to tourists, many visit to take advantage of one of the few green spaces in town rather than to see the animals.*

Two monkeys sit motionless in their cages. The zoo does not have a good history of care for its animals and many look sickly.*