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15 Feb, 2011

As Power Shifts & Tables Turn, A Global Good Could Emerge

This essay-cum-commentary is dedicated to the memory of Tunisian fruit-vendor Mohammed Bouazizi and the hundreds of protesters and dissidents in the streets of Tunisia and Egypt who died, were injured or otherwise took a stand for the cause of basic freedoms, dignity and human rights.


As the upheaval spreads in the Middle East, next month’s ITB Berlin will convene in a tense and uncertain atmosphere. After a brief period of calm in 2010, the specter of global instability and insecurity again looms high. The first year of the second decade of the 21st century is clearly off to a momentous start.

The end of the Hosni Mubarak presidency in Egypt came on 11th February, in the period of Aquarius, the 11th star of the Zodiac, in the year 2011. Feb 11 also marks the day of the Iranian Revolution when the pro-American dictator, the Shah, was ousted in 1979. This year, 2011, is also the 10th year since 9/11.

Climate change is out, regime change is in. More regime changes are shaping up in the Arab and Islamic countries and possibly beyond. Young people everywhere seek a new dawn but it will not happen in isolation. Unless problems are dealt with in a holistic manner, the protestors will see their hopes and aspirations dashed and betrayed. They may not get a second chance. Those who seek to resist change may have been caught off-guard the first time around. They will not make the same mistake twice.

The Role Of Egyptian Tourism

Armed with a new meaning for its tourism slogan, “Where It All Begins,” Egypt’s tourism industry has a unique opportunity to write a distinctive magna carta of reform for itself. Indeed, Egypt is no ordinary country. With an unmatched historic heritage and civilisation, Egypt is important to all three monotheistic religions and has been at the vanguard of Arab nationalism. Home to the most renowned institution of learning in the Arab world, Al Azhar University, Egypt has amongst the best-educated peoples in the Middle East. And much more.

Egyptian travel & tourism is ideally placed to help reshape the global tourism agenda. Like Thailand, hit by a devastating political crisis last April-May, Egypt has a vast reservoir of international goodwill and is being showered with global accolades. Tahrir square is today probably a better-known tourism icon than the pyramids. In what has now become standard operating procedure for post-crisis tourism recovery programmes, a combination of facilitation, accessibility and marketing strategies may help business boom.

At a national level, the surgery will take time to produce results. But no permanent solutions are likely if the disease remains in the system, and if the old habits that led to the original sickness are resumed. Hence, Egypt cannot afford go back to business as usual.

To help tourism be an intrinsic part of the solution, there is an historic opportunity to organise a global conference in Cairo focussing on the new role of travel & tourism in the changing world order, especially the impact of power shifts, geopolitical developments, technological change and globalisation. Such an event can bring together people from all walks of life, give voice to the voiceless and delve into a whole new range of subjects that the industry has gingerly avoided all along.

Drawing upon both the strengths and experience of Egypt, a new global agenda for tourism in the second decade of the 21st century can strive to learn from the mistakes of the first decade of the 21st century, bring in some new thinking and help the industry rebuild itself from a grassroots-based, holistic, long-term perspective. By moving beyond resilience, jobs and economic impact, travel & tourism can become a major force for positive change in the emerging world order.

International travel organisations like the UN World Tourism Organisation can play a major role in convening such a conference. For the first time, the UNWTO is also headed by an Arab – another unique opportunity to help provide an alternative perspective on world events.

If the Egyptian tourism industry does not look beyond the need to refill empty hotel rooms and seats, it will squander a chance to revolutionise the way the industry does business — locally, regionally and globally. Worse, it will betray the trust of all the young people who seek long-term stability, peace and justice based on firmer social, political and economic foundations. Short-term gain again will lead to long-term pain, and the cycle will repeat itself.

Dignity, Peace, Justice And Statehood For The Palestinians

The Egyptian travel & tourism industry is ideally placed to help end the blockade of Gaza, and deliver dignity, peace, justice and statehood to the Palestinian people.

The collaboration with the Israelis to impose a collective-punishment blockade on Gaza was one of the most offensive policies of the Mubarak regime. It is a travesty for the Gazans, all fellow Arabs, to be thus imprisoned. They deserve the same respect, dignity, justice and peace as the Egyptians. Indeed, dismantling the Gaza blockade will be good for the Gazans, Egyptians, Palestinians and even Israelis.

As Gaza has no natural resources beyond olives and strawberries, and no industrial base, tourism is a logical choice for economic and social development. Hundreds of thousands of supporters of the Palestinian people from all over the world will flock to Gaza, bringing with them cash and investment and creating jobs for the long-suffering people. As the logical gateway, tourism to Egypt will also boom. Furthermore, the massive amounts of products and services that will need to be imported into Gaza will also come primarily from Egypt.

Irrespective of their political leanings, the Gazans will be too busy making money to get involved in any violence. When the Palestinians in the Israeli-occupied West Bank see the tourism dividends being reaped by the Gazans, they too, will seek to facilitate tourism to the West Bank via the Allenby bridge crossing with Jordan. Visas for these future trips can be handled through Egyptian and Jordanian missions abroad, until such time as the Palestinian missions are capable of taking over.

Today, thousands of people, including Christian pilgrims seeking to visit the holy spots in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, have to undergo the humiliating experience of applying for a visa at an Israeli embassy. Many of them also choose to enter Israel by the country’s main gateway, Tel Aviv. That artificially inflates the Israeli arrivals figures. Alternative border crossings could help the Egyptians, Jordanians and Palestinians get a larger share of the cake.

Challenging The Negative Stereotypes Of Islam

The Egyptian travel & tourism industry is ideally placed to challenge and dispel the negative stereotypes of Islam, a religion followed by the vast majority of Egyptian people.

Ever since 9/11, a relentless and well-oiled smear campaign has sought to link Islam with terrorism and violence. Although recent global history is rife with examples proving that terrorists cut across all castes and creeds (there have been Jewish, Hindu, Sikh, Irish, Basque, Sri Lankan, Colombian, Maoist and other terrorists for decades), the consistency of the campaign has put the Islamic world on the defensive. It has also led to associated problems such as visa restrictions, racial profiling, surveillance and other security issues, with Muslims being both the primary targets and victims.

Now, however, the images of peaceful Egyptian protestors bowed in prayer, the hijab-clad women and bearded men has destroyed the stereotype images of “Islamic terrorists”, and proven the lie that Islam is an inherently violent religion or incompatible with democracy. Even the Americans seem to be realising this. New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof said in his recent column (headlined “What Egypt Can Teach America”) that it is time to “stop treating Islamic fundamentalism as a bogyman and allowing it to drive American foreign policy. American paranoia about Islamism has done as much damage as Muslim fundamentalism itself.”

If influential figures in the U.S. media are finally waking up to this reality, the opportunity to craft a clear counter-strategy of rebuttal becomes clear. The Organisation of Islamic Conference (OIC) grouping has made countering of Islamophobia a major pillar of its 10-year Plan of Action. Numerous reports on the issue clearly identify the key players behind this smear campaign and suggest ways to combat it. Given Islam’s central role in Egyptian society, the Egyptian tourism industry is well-placed to help dispel these myths.

If Egypt leads, the Islamic world will follow. The Egyptian revolution will take on a new meaning. Visitors from the Islamic world will flock to Egypt and Tunisia to show support.

Challenging The American Street To Make The U.S. Government Accountable For Its Actions

The Egyptian travel & tourism industry is ideally placed to send a message to the American street about the need for a change in U.S. government policies.

As they extend their presence in Egypt, American hotel chains, travel industry executives and others have claimed a self-appointed right to tell the Egyptians how to fix their problems. In the new era to come, accountability is set to become a two-way street. Egypt’s tourism industry can now tell the Americans to talk less and listen more.

People all over the world feel the effects of U.S. government policies but cannot hold it accountable. This entirely undemocratic system fuels global instability and insecurity. U.S. voters and taxpayers need to better exercise their right to hold their government accountable themselves or help the rest of the world to do so.

Numerous reports have claimed that the U.S. intelligence was caught “off-guard” by the protests in Egypt and Tunisia. This so-called intelligence failure is hardly the only one. In 2003, Iraq was invaded in pursuit of weapons of mass destruction which former CIA Director George Tenet was “slam dunk” sure existed. None were found. In 2001, Afghanistan was invaded in pursuit of Osama bin Laden. In spite of what must be the biggest and most expensive manhunt in history, the suspected terrorist mastermind has never been found.

Similar failures have plagued the financial and economic sectors. The 2008-09 global economic crisis began with the real estate meltdown in the U.S. and then cascaded to include the declared bankruptcy of multinational icons like Goldman Sachs and General Motors. Both got huge government bailouts. Today, a number of American states are reportedly bordering on bankruptcy and ready to file for similar bailouts. America is already the world’s most indebted country; the U.S. dollar may soon not be worth the paper it is printed on.

In spite of these events causing massive economic and geopolitical disruptions and job losses worldwide, U.S. decision-makers face no global accountability.

The rise of the Arab and Islamic worlds has set the stage for a levelling of the playing field. U.S. voters and taxpayers need to be confronted with these global concerns, and asked whether they see themselves as part of the solution or part of the problem. Has the U.S. government created a safer place for Americans and their children? Are the costs and price they are paying worth it? Are they cognizant of the damage done by their government’s policies? Is it time for the American street to follow the Egyptian and Tunisian streets and muster the courage to challenge the status quo?

The U.S. business community includes a vast phalanx of performance-oriented financiers, marketers, researchers and spin-doctors. Perhaps they ought to analyse their government’s policies from a hard-nosed RoI perspective. A little empathy for those at the receiving end of these policies may help inject a badly-needed sense of balance.


The tectonic faults under Arab world and the Middle East are shifting. If the Arab world is looking for some help and guidance on the politics of revolts and revolutions, Asia is the place to turn to. People Power has transformed the Philippines, Indonesia and Thailand which have all ousted military and monetary dictators in their recent histories. None of their problems have gone away, but they nevertheless are all popular tourism destinations.

The revolution in Tahrir square risks becoming a flash-in-the pan event if the momentum is not maintained. The wind is now in the sails of the peoples of Egypt, the Arab and Islamic worlds. As a major job-creator, the Egyptian travel & tourism industry cannot remain isolated. Bringing back the visitors will be easy. Raising the level of the game and influencing the changing world order will further cement this revolution’s place in history.

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