How drop in tourism is altering life for Sinai Bedouins

With tourism having declined in Egypt since the 2011 revolution, south Sinai residents have been leaving their rich, green lands and heading toward urban areas in search of job opportunities.

al-monitor Guides lead tourists hiking through the mountains of south Sinai, near St. Catherine, Egypt, April 18, 2015.  Photo by David Degner/Getty Images.

Topics covered

tradition, nature, sinai peninsula, economy, bedouin society, bedouin, egyptian revolution, tourism

Feb 6, 2017

At the foot of the tallest mountain in central-south Sinai lies an unexpected swath of green. It appears as if placed there by mistake, a color block in an otherwise terracotta red valley. Closer up, the elements of the smudge take shape, revealing a walled orchard, a field of tall leafy plants, olive trees and a tent. The buzzing of a generator can be heard.

For Ramadan Abu Sayed, this garden has been home for nearly 25 years. It is where his children and grandchildren were born. Sometimes hikers and backpackers pay a small fee to sleep among its trees. Today, in the midst of the downturn in tourism that followed the 2011 Egyptian revolution, the garden provides fruit and vegetables for Abu Sayed’s family.

“I’m growing pomegranates, peaches, lemons, oranges here,” said Abu Sayed, the setting sun hitting the peaks of the mountains above him. Abu Sayed, these days a quiet man in a dark gray thawb and blue scarf, grew up deeper in Sinai's mountains and moved closer to the city of Saint Catherine in the 1990s in the hope of finding work, schools for his children and health care for his aging parents.

At the time, the little town showed promise. Tourists, pilgrims and hikers had been gravitating toward the Sinai mountains since the 1960s, so gardens like Abu Sayed’s were often packed with visitors. A good livelihood could be made from tourism, and by the 1980s many Saint Catherine Bedouin had begun to leave mountain life for the newer trade.

“They liked life in the mountain, in the garden, but they left for tourists and for business,” Abu Sayed’s friend Naser Mansur said of his fellow Bedouin. “Some of them had big dreams. They wanted a car, they wanted a good house. They see that in the gardens, they’re not rich people.”

Mansur has an expert's knowledge in the wildlife of the south Sinai, and on walks through the desert, he often pauses to explain how certain herbs or flowers can improve digestion or counteract poisons. His knowledge about the area's environment is deep and rich, and the health of gardens like Abu Sayed’s depends on it. Over the centuries that Sinai Bedouin have been cultivating the land, they have developed innovative techniques to grow crops and raise livestock in the desert’s sometimes harsh environment. Keeping the gardens healthy requires a lot of effort and input — a lifetime of inherited knowledge and adjusting with the seasons. The challenge of constantly fine-tuning infrastructure to keep up with the changing natural world means the old ways are not always the easiest.

The modern tourist economy promised something different. Visitors to Sinai brought cash that could be used for a settled life, one that looked beyond the desert and could pay for opportunities like school and modern technology. Many families sold their flocks and left their orchards in pursuit of wage employment and cash. The tradition of farming declined. Locals estimate that the number of gardens dropped from some 400 to just 30 today, and knowledge that had developed in an orderly fashion over centuries began to fade.

If the promise of tourism had sustained itself, that may not have mattered. The last five years of turmoil, however, have been disastrous for Egypt’s economy. In 2012, tourism revenues fell by some 2.5 billion Egyptian pounds ($135.6 million), and the number of visitors decreased by 32%. Saint Catherine was hit particularly badly. Whereas before 2011, nearly half the male population worked as guides, less than 15% now have income from the trade.

When the visitors stopped arriving, the previous loss of orchards was keenly felt, as people who had sold their flocks and gardens had little to fall back on. Some newly unemployed men moved to Cairo in search of work, but found that mainland Egyptians, who often regard Bedouin with prejudice, looked upon them with suspicion. As development through tourism began to unravel, many among Sinai’s indigenous population began to feel that the only people the Bedouin could depend on were themselves.

On the road to Abu Sayed’s place, Mansur points with approval to several plots where families are building homes or small gardens. People made a mistake, he believes, in discarding their self-sufficiency, and he wants to prevent this from happening in his own family. His son, now 11, works in the family’s orchard on the days he does not attend school. Education is a priority to Mansur, because it means his children can thrive in a modern economy outside Sinai if they want. The education of the desert is just as important as that received in the classroom.

“When you stay in the mountains, you study a lot of things,” the son said. “You study how to climb, how to make fruit. My father was taking us all the time to climb in the mountains. We spent all summer and all winter there. We feel the cold, we feel the heat. We feel everything.” He gestured toward the scrubby slopes, scattered with small, tough plants and the land above the terracotta cliffs that only those familiar with the land can navigate, and said, “We need to just be in the mountains, nothing else. Up and down, with the goats. Free, all day.”

Although Mansur would happily spend more time in the mountains, he is not just thinking of himself. The home his children grow up in needs to equip them with everything they need to thrive in the modern economy. “With a family, you don’t just think about yourself. You have to look around at other people,” he said. “You need to have both.”

The question for Mansur for the moment is whether that is possible. He admires the pragmatism of Abu Sayed’s project, which is both an orchard that feeds a family and a camp ground for tourists if they come. The hope is to remain in a state of self-sufficiency, independent from an economy that has proved to be unreliable, but positioned to take from its fruits when possible.

Meanwhile, Abu Sayed and Mansur both look to the outside world with unease. Given the region’s recent history, uncertainty seems to be one of the only guarantees.

“We need to take care of ourselves, take our camels, take our wheat, stay in the mountains,” Mansur explained. “We know the place. We can protect ourselves.”

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