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Women-led tourism initiatives are changing the way Egypt is seen, experienced

More women are gradually breaking into Egypt’s tourism sector and launching their own projects, often promoting along the way a new type of experience to visitors.
Umm Yasser (2nd-R), an Egyptian Bedouin female guide from the Hamada tribe, leads a group of hikers in Wadi el-Sahu in the southern Sinai governorate, during the first Sinai Trail led by Bedouin female guides, Egypt, March 29, 2019.

Marwa Hafez, an Egyptology graduate at the faculty of Tourism and Hotel Management in Suez, was hired in 2006 to work at the Egyptian Museum in Cairo as part of a group of 26 new guides. Of all of them, however, Hafez was the only woman, a position that, just as she was entering the labor market, made her feel lonely and, at times, intimidated. “It was not easy at all, for a young woman in her 20s, to be around them,” she recalled.

Coming from a small village in Sharqiya governorate, Hafez managed to carve out a niche for herself over the years, until she was eventually able to take the leap and open her own business as a tour guide in what’s still a rare move. “In the [tourism industry] most workers are men, there was no real support,” Hafez told Al-Monitor. “Preparing tours is a business: tickets, hotels, cars, drivers. And all of these are just male, male, male and male,” she added.

Yet looking back and comparing the situation to now, Hafez said there is some change, albeit slow, and that she perceives some greater presence of women in the sector beyond being just tour guides in big companies. “Now I have a stable life, I need to help others,” she said. “I try to support women in their career, to push other women to come and join.”

Like her, more women are gradually breaking into Egypt’s tourism sector and launching their own projects, often promoting along the way a new type of experience away from the commercial programs and mass tourism model that characterizes the country and that dives into lesser-visited locations and often overlooked activities.

The Egyptian government has also been particularly keen in recent years to push for greater participation of women in its tourism industry, one of the country’s most dynamic economic sectors. In November 2018, the Tourism Reform Program drawn up by the Ministry of Tourism stated its commitment to increase the workforce of women in the sector by cooperating with tourism faculties to address the low school-to-work transition, providing anti-harassment training at workplaces and promoting female role models.

In May 2019, Egypt also became the first country in the world to introduce the Gender Equality Seal program, developed by the United Nations Development Program, in tourism, as part of its National Strategy for the Empowerment of Egyptian Women 2030. The Ministry of Tourism has also set up a Closing the Gender Gap Accelerator aimed at increasing women’s participation in the workforce to achieve parity, advancing more women into management positions and closing gender gaps in remuneration.

“This has been done through the restructuring of the Equal Opportunities Unit after merging the ministries of Tourism and Antiquities [in 2019], including members from all sectors of the ministry and its affiliated bodies,” Ghada Shalaby, deputy minister for tourism, told Al-Monitor. “The unit is designated to support women and achieve equal opportunities at the ministry and handle gender-based discrimination.”

She said, “The number of women working in the tourism sector is 12,446, which represents 10% of the workforce in the industry. This number includes 2,447 female tour guides, which reflects the safe atmosphere of this field."

One such initiative established in 2016 is Bellies En Route. Its founders, Laila Hassaballa and Mariam Nezar, are passionate about food anthropology and organized their own travels around food culture, until they realized that no one in Egypt had thought of launching a food tour yet. They then decided to take the lead and design one in Cairo. “Many tourists come here and leave without actually trying our food, actual Egyptian food, which is not part of their trip,” Nezar told Al-Monitor.

Although other, less ambitious initiatives have popped up since then, mostly linked to Airbnb experiences, Bellies En Route is still the only specialized food tour company in Egypt. And its founders are hoping to be able to grow in 2022, develop other tours, expand to other cities and design products also directed at Egyptians. “We want food to be the vehicle that we use to teach people our culture,” Hassaballa told Al-Monitor.

Also aiming to show the public a lesser-visited side of Cairo, Asmaa Khattab launched in 2015 the initiative Walk Like An Egyptian. Before doing so, Khattab used to work as a tour guide with the more commercial tour programs offered by big travel agencies. But she quickly felt disappointed as most tours were basic and not designed to get the tourist experience what she considers to be “the real Egypt.” She told Al-Monitor, “I thought tourism was about hospitality, and Egypt and Egyptians are famous for hospitality."

By the end of 2013, Khattab also felt a social responsibility toward those who had been most hard-hit by the collapse of tourism in the wake of the country’s post-2011 instability. And she decided to take a step forward shorty after. “My idea was to support local communities, and I saw that we have in Egypt untouched and very rich potential for heritage and culture that is not used in tourism. It was also about improving the quality of culture tourism in Egypt. I thought cultural tourism deserved a better place,” she said.

Even further off the most frequent tourist tracks in Egypt, the award-winning Sinai Trail, a 550-kilometer (342-mile) hiking trail across southern Sinai Peninsula through the territories of eight Bedouin tribes, launched in 2019 a new initiative where hikes are led, for the first time, by local Bedouin women, creating new opportunities and showcasing new narratives of the little-visited region. Sinai Trail, which has been severely affected by the coronavirus pandemic, aims to integrate in the hike the particular experiences of Bedouin women.

“People of the village and I were very happy because when people come, they bring work and money to us,” Umm Yasser, one of the guides in the first hike, told Al-Monitor back then. “I am especially glad for the younger generations because I am already old. I would like to see [more] people come and visit this place to help other women,” she added.