For Arab tourists, Cairo can be sin city
Worried by violence in popular Lebanon, Arab tourists are heading to Egypt instead, and causing waves as they ignore Islamic customs adhered to at home.
Cairo — As the sun set on another day of "Arab Season," Amr Khouli leaned on the cushions of his boat as it moved to the gentle waves of the Nile.
This time of year, Mr. Khouli spends days on his faluka, one of the many motorboats that cart tourists up and down the wide river that cuts through this city, catering to a growing number of Arab tourists who have passed up violent Lebanon and opted for safer Egypt for summertime holidays.
In 2006, 13 percent more Arab tourists came to Egypt and stayed 12 percent longer than the year before. This season is shaping up to be another banner year because of the Lebanese instability, says Hala el-Khatib, spokeswoman for the Ministry of Tourism.
But while Khouli welcomes the influx of money that comes with the uptick in tourism, many Egyptians complain that Arabs coming from nearby countries, such as religiously strict Saudi Arabia and Libya, are using Cairo as their own city of sin.
Indeed, for many of these tourists, the pyramids and the Sphinx are low on the agenda. High-end shopping, the best restaurants, Egypt's two seas, and watching Egypt's famous movies are the common pastimes.
But it is the tales of drinking to excess, driving recklessly, and even soliciting prostitutes that dominate the Egyptian view of Arab tourists.
To be sure, tourists of all stripes in Egypt drink more than their share of the locally brewed Stella beer, but the exceptional wealth of the Arab tourists coupled with what Egyptians see as violations of religious rules grates more than the bad behavior of Westerners.
"It's very [strict] in Saudi Arabia because of the religion, so we like to come here to see different countries and different religions – it's not so [strict] as in Saudi Arabia," says Hossam Mohamed al-Shariff, who works in the Saudi embassy here.
Rising numbers, longer stays
Tourists from Arab countries made up about 20 percent of all visitors in 2005, according to Egypt's Central Agency for Public Mobilization and Statistics 2005 yearbook, the latest edition available. But they stay 50 percent longer than their Western counterparts and therefore spend more per tourist. Egypt wants to increase that with sparkling new malls featuring expensive foreign brand names like Gucci and Bulgari. Hotels throw lavish Saudi-only parties featuring top Arab singers, and house casinos and shopping lure Arab tourists, hotel employees say.
The "Arab Season" runs from about July 1 through September, although this year may be cut short since Ramadan begins in early September.
Most visitors stay for several weeks, either in top hotels or rented furnished apartments. The demand means that an apartment that might rent for a few hundred dollars in the winter could go for $2,000 a month, says Fahmy Nadeem, who rents apartments. Some families move out of their places in the summer to make a quick profit from renting to visitors. Landlords even toss residents out to ensure that leases end on May 30.
"I prefer Lebanon to Egypt … but Lebanon has problems now," says Hamad el-Shamali, who is visiting from Kuwait with his wife and six children, as he reads a newspaper in the cafe of the swanky Grand Hyatt hotel.
His family is typical of many Arab tourists. They rented an apartment near the Nile for their month-long stay. They spend their days visiting an amusement park, cruising the Nile or, as on this night, heading to the hotel's theater to see the new movie by classic Egyptian movie star Adel Imam.
"Anyone who drinks from the Nile will return to Egypt," he says, citing a proverb. "But also because of the good people here."
Prostitution an issue
The expansive garden area in the Marriott Hotel in Cairo's Zamalek neighborhood is a popular hangout for visiting Arabs. It's also know to be a place where many come looking for prostitution.
On the night this reporter visited, two women wearing heavy makeup and enveloping black robes sat at a table. A man wearing the dishdasheh robe, typical in Gulf countries, and a baseball cap walked by and dropped a piece of paper on the women's table.
What it said only the women know. But it's a common tactic to write down a room number and a dollar amount and discreetly toss the slip in the vicinity of a subtly apparent prostitute.
Mr. Shariff says that because Egypt is just a short trip from Saudi Arabia, it's an easy spot for vacation. "I like to visit the tourist places and visit the cafes here, and it has an Arab flavor … we like to come and join these parties that have Arab singers," he says.
As Shariff spoke to this reporter in the Marriott garden, a waiter approached and said he and a foreign journalist could not conduct an interview there.
"Don't worry. I'm not telling them about the hashish and [a drug called] bangao and Leil [nightclub]," he laughs, and waves him away.
Leil is a particularly famous club on Cairo's Pyramids Street, an area well known among Arab tourists for the good times to be had.
The Arab tourists "increase every year because we are very loving to them and we give them very good service and high quality. So they prefer to come here," says club manager Sami Nasherti, crowing that Leil is the only club to have received five stars from Egypt's Tourism Ministry. Leil provides "everything they like," he adds. "They eat and drink and see the belly dancers."
The two sides of the 'Arab Season'
At just past midnight, the crowds have only started to trickle in for the eight-hour program of belly dancers and singers at Leil.
Nasherti says the clients don't buy much alcohol but bring expensive foreign spirits, available only in the duty-free shops, with them.
Unlike the grittier clubs on the strip that cater to men, Leil serves "mainly families," Nasherti says.
But even with five stars and a dedicated second level for families, Leil still represents the two sides of the "Arab Season."
Two women in the bathroom, when asked, say vaguely that they are working. In the large mirror, they give a final once over to their sparkling lipstick, long strands of fake hair, and tight, midriff-baring clothing, then head out into the dark main room where the entertainment is under way and the seats are reserved for single men.