x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

Cairo's other pyramids emerge

Tourists often only spend a few hours at the Red and Bent Pyramids in Egypt. But that could change with a multimillion dollar eco-lodge project.

The Egyptian government is trying to lure tourists to lesser-known pyramids in Dahshur such as the Red Pyramid, above. Mohammed Al Sehiti / AFP
The Egyptian government is trying to lure tourists to lesser-known pyramids in Dahshur such as the Red Pyramid, above. Mohammed Al Sehiti / AFP

If you follow the Nile south of the smog of Cairo, and drive on for about 40km past the occasional donkey and herd of goats before heading west out into the desert, two large pyramids eventually come into view.

These are a long way from the famous Pyramids of Giza, which are right on the edge of Cairo, have a KFC and Pizza Hut on their doorstep, and attract millions of tourists each year.

Still, some 100,000 visitors make the journey annually to the Red Pyramid and the Bent Pyramid, more than an hour from the city. Most only spend a couple of hours at the site before returning to Cairo.

But now all that could change with a multimillion-dollar eco-lodge and sustainable tourism project to try to get tourists to spend more time and money in the rural villages in Dahshur. This will help to reduce poverty in the communities through training the locals to work in the tourism sector. The plan is supported by the United Nations and Egypt's government.

In turn, it is hoped this scheme could ultimately benefit the wider industry. Egypt has plans to attract 25 million tourists by 2020 and cultural travellers, where visitors experience the "real Egypt", have been identified as one of the ways of achieving this ambitious target.

"Mass tourism is already doing very well," says Adel El Gendy, the national project coordinator for the Dahshur project and the strategic planning officer for Egypt's tourism development authority (TDA). "We want Dahshur to become a destination in Egypt."

Dahshur is made up of an agricultural community of five villages with a total population of about 40,000.

"We have to benefit the local economy by the tourists," says Mr El Gendy. "We have a lot of niche activities in Egypt: rural; painting; bird-watching."

The tourism industry is vital to the country, with 12.6 per cent of all jobs generated by the sector. The industry in 2010 accounted for 11.3 per cent of the country's economy.

Tourist numbers reached a peak of 14.7 million that year, but unrest hit the sector hard with a 33 per cent decline last year to 9.8 million.

But many of the benefits from these tourist dollars are limited to the major cities and the beach resorts, with little economic benefit for rural communities.

By setting up eco-lodges in Dahshur and home-stays with locals, tourists would be able to spend a night or two within the area, and experience the local flavour, Mr El Gendy says.

"The expenditure for niche tourism is very high and it doesn't require the same investment in infrastructure as mass tourism," he says.

One of the biggest challenges is to get the local people to adapt.

"We're trying to train the people to accept tourism," says Mr El Gendy.

Efforts are already under way as part of a US$3 million (Dh11m) programme that was funded by the UN-Spain Millennium Development Goals Achievement Fund to train locals in hospitality and teach them English.

The TDA has committed 50 million Egyptian pounds (Dh30.4m) to improving infrastructure in Dahshur, including roads. "It will improve the state of the local community," says Mounir Fakhry Abdel Nour, Egypt's minister of tourism. "They will acquire skills."

It is unclear what impact the revolution and the continued political turbulence in the country is having on the plans. But Egypt's ministry of tourism believes that such initiatives are crucial for the sector.

"I think the biggest mistake that has been made under the previous regime is that the participation of the people was not there," says Mr Nour.

"If you go down to the tourism sector in particular, I think this is even more true. The local communities have to be stakeholders."

rbundhun@thenational.ae

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