Terrorism and Tourism

We are in south Sinai, the locus of some of the deadliest terrorist attacks on tourists in the last few years, and we were told by a co-guest at our hotel that locals had told them that a major attack of some sort was expected at or shortly after end of Ramadan, which is today. The end of Ramadan, or the Eid al-Fitr, is not especially known for being a time for terrorist activity, but I suppose any holiday may pose a tempting/meaningful date for an attacker. Are we afraid? Not really–but certain senses, honed in 2001, seem to be kicking back in, second thoughts about the kinds of luggage loaded onto our bus, a lowered bar for what constitutes “strange behavior” in others and what is the safest mode of transport. As I previously discussed in my post of 4.29, traveling does bring about somewhat greater risks of all kinds, and with it more paranoia about what might happen. All in all, a good time for some thoughts on terrorism and tourism.

From a traveler’s perspective, I think that there are three categories of terrorism, each of which carries different risks. The first is “domestic” terrorism, the best example of which is probably the many recent attacks in India, or the recent Damascus bombing. As a Korean traveler told me in northern Pakistan, Korean tourists aren’t worried about bombs in Pakistan because they’re aimed at other Pakistanis (say, ones of a different religious sect, or ones affiliated with a certain political movement) and not at tourists. While of course a traveler can still be caught in the crossfire (believe it or not, we ran into two separate tourists who said that they were very close to blasts in Lahore), at least some of these bombs are likely to go off in places where a foreign traveler is not particularly likely to venture. We are not the intended target.

The second category is terrorism directed at outside interests. The most prominent target in this category is perhaps an embassy, or a foreign military installation. This type of terrorism is perhaps most akin to a sort of informal war–the attackers mean not only to terrorize but to make a statement and inflict damage. Examples of this are of course many, including U.S. embassy bombings in any number of countries, the attack on the USS Cole, the bombing in Beirut.

The third category is, for travelers, the scariest: terrorism directed specifically at tourists, most likely in an effort to hurt tourism and decrease foreign influence in the country. The deadliest recent example of this is probably the Bali bomb of 2002, which killed 202 people from 21 (!) different countries. More recently, four people were targeted and killed in Yemen at a major tourist attraction. Hotel bombings fall somewhere between categories two and three, perhaps depending on the kind of hotel that is chosen (some hotels may be chosen for their international “brand,” sort of like an embassy, rather than the explicit desire to discourage foreign travelers).

The “prize” for this third, scariest category of terrorism goes to Egypt, not only for the number of incidents but the heinousness of the targets and methods. In 1997, in an incident known as the Luxor Massacre, a group of six attackers armed with guns and knives trapped and slaughtered 63 people, mostly tourists, in one of the main tourist attractions of Luxor, the Temple of Hatshepsut. In 2004, 2005 and 2006, terrorists killed 34, 88 and 23 people, respectively, in bombings in three different resort areas in the Sinai: Taba, Sharm el Sheikh and Dahab. Also in 2005, there were bombings or shootings near three of the most popular tourist sites in Cairo, the Khan al Khalili market, the Egyptian Museum and Saladdin’s Citadel.

Temple of Hatshepsut, Luxor, site of one of the grisliest terror attacks in recent history

Due to the layout of the ruin, tourists were “trapped” for slaughter.

Three separate suicide bombs were set off in Dahab on April 24, 2006.

A truck with explosives drove into the lobby of the Taba Hilton on October 7, 2004, one of three bombings that evening.

Egyptian Museum, Cairo

Yes, the odds of me or you happening to be in the wrong place at the wrong time are still fairly slim, but the probability increases dramatically when the attackers are choosing their targets specifically to target groups of tourists, places where tourists spend their time. We are their target. Maybe we shouldn’t “let the terrorists win” by avoiding places such as Egypt altogether, but as the lesson of September 11 taught, terrorists do like to hit the same targets over and over again (perhaps because they are simply the best targets), and Egypt as a country has a uniquely dangerous history in this respect, something visitors should be aware of. While there are countless police and military stationed all across Egypt, one wonders whether armed men begging for tips or sleeping in the backs of vehicles can really stop an attack, or whether such a presence would deter terrorists who are willing to die for their cause.

Fellow Tourists

When you pick a travel destination, you may think of how far it is, how easy it is to get there, what there is to see, what there is to eat, where there is to stay, how much things cost, and how safe it is. It may not occur to you to gauge who will be there with you–what kinds of people your fellow tourists will be. But the more you think about it, the more you realize that who else will be there should be a key consideration in choosing a travel destination.

Perhaps the “best” fellow travelers, for us, are independent budget travelers. Most typical is the late 20s/early 30s backpacker, usually from Western Europe or East Asia, traveling after graduating college or post-graduate education, or between jobs. As a whole, Central Asia attracts a well-educated, well-traveled lot, with ample linguistic abilities, travel skills, cultural sensitivity, and so forth. Almost without a doubt, a fellow traveler in Central Asia will have something interesting to show for themselves, a good story or two from the region or elsewhere on their travels. The types of fellow travelers, I find, broadens the “easier” the destination is, but broader does not necessarily mean worse. For example, in Southeast Asia, you may find a younger or less-worldy crowd, but for the most part you are still dealing with independent travelers, people with some sense of adventure and desire to immerse themselves in local cultures.

This issue occurred to me because Egypt is perhaps the worst place in the world that we’ve experienced, in terms of fellow travelers. Egypt is overrun with package tourists. Now, there’s nothing wrong, fundamentally, with going on a package tour. Travel planning can be a daunting and demanding effort (however much I love it), and going on a tour does maximize the amount of things you can see and learn in a limited amount of time. A knowledgeable guide could even afford you cultural insight that would be hard to access for an independent traveler. And, of course, tours can be quite cost-efficient.

But far more often, tours have serious deficiencies. Traveling in a guided group insulates you from interactions with locals (however appealing that sometimes sounds in Egypt). Traveling in a group means that you never have sights to yourself, paced according to your own interests. Explanations are dumbed down to the lowest common denominator. Many tour groups stay at mediocre hotels and eat mediocre food. That is why many (though by no means all) tours attract people who are intimidated by traveling by themselves, people who are less interested in cultural immersion, people who are satisfied with a quick and superficial understanding of history and people with relatively low standards for food and hotels (at least as far as value, authenticity and atmosphere are concerned–no doubt almost all tours stay and eat at fancier and more hygenic places than we do). (One might even go so far as to suggest that tour group tourists don’t really enjoy travel for travel itself. Let’s face it, spending long periods of time immersed in places where people speak little or no English and may have little else in common with you can be lonely, no matter how close you are to your travel companion(s). It should come as no surprise then that people turn to groups and in the end derive as much or more pleasure from internal group interactions as from external stimulus–that’s certainly been the case in the groups we’ve had the pleasure of joining.)

Egypt is full of such mediocre tours. Perhaps people are intimidated by traveling in an Islamic country, or maybe they have very little travel experience and are fulfilling some childhood dream of seeing the Pyramids. But this lack of standards, on the part of the tourists, results in a country whose travel infrastructure is, considering the volume of tourism, largely unspectacular. Package tourists, for the most part, stay in mediocre three-star type hotels that are absurdly overpriced when not booked on a tour, and so Egypt does not have the wonderful range of budget accommodations that one finds in, say, Southeast Asia. Food is similarly uninspiring, with many restaurants offering bland adaptations of local food (I suppose we can thank the abundant British tourists for that). Worst of all, having undiscriminating, relatively free-spending package tourists with apparently little interest in learning about local culture or spending time with locals constantly breezing in and out of cities promotes the worst kind of behavior in local merchants: aggressive salesmanship, overcharging, poor service.

Heaven forbid you have to walk a little to see the Pyramids!

There are other fellow tourist considerations in addition to the prevalence of tour groups at a given destination. In some places, there are large numbers of domestic tourists. The most extreme example of this, I believe, is China, where foreign tourists are almost always dramatically outnumbered by domestic tourists. This can be good or bad, depending on your perspective. Hawaii and Tahiti attract a lot of honeymooning couples, and so a single traveler may feel awkward and lonely. There are cultural issues, too. If you speak French, and only French, you would have more opportunities to meet fellow French speakers in a destination that attracts relatively more French, such as Cambodia or Madagascar.

One small story, showing that hotels understand that travelers care who their co-travelers are: Somewhat shockingly, the Hyatt in Sharm El Sheikh enforces a dress code banning Islamic dress (euphemistically called “ethnic dress”) at the pool and on the beach, even while allowing topless bathing on the beach–no doubt their research showed that their “international” clientele felt more comfortable without a burqa in sight.

Suez Canal

Like my posts of 5.3, 9.2 and 9.24, a picture from a place you’ve heard so much about, but perhaps never seen a picture of, or tried to imagine.

The Suez Canal, like the Straits of Malacca (see post of 9.2), is a great “bottleneck” of global trade, and through it passes approximately 7.5% of the world’s shipped cargo and much of Europe’s oil requirements. The Suez Canal is bigger (in depth and width) than the Panama Canal, and so the latter acts more to set the maximum size for ships–“Panamax.”

Egypt made some $4.1 billion from the Suez Canal tolls in 2007, its third largest source of hard currency after tourism and remittances. Geography matters!

Election Special – What the World Thinks

We just voted! If you can’t guess who I voted for you’re not reading the blog very carefully, but far more interesting than my choice, I thought that you may be interested in hearing what we’ve been hearing, from people we have met in our travels.

People in nearly every country we’ve been in have been intensely curious about the election–almost every time that we mention that we’re American, the election soon comes up. Generally, people ask us either whom we support or who we think will win. People don’t understand the U.S. electoral system completely–many thought Hillary was still running (and often preferred her over Obama), and I imagine few understand the workings of the electoral college–but they are following the election and care deeply about its outcome. People have said to us that they wish they could have some sort of say in the election, because its outcome will have repercussions for the whole world. Media coverage is equally extensive. We’ve seen articles about the election in numerous local newspapers, and see a great deal of footage on local television. Europeans have told us that their local media is covering the election as if it were an election in their own country.

Every single person we’ve spoken to, given the choice between Obama and McCain, hopes that Obama wins. This is in complete agreement with The Economist’s Global Electoral College, which reports only three countries (Georgia, Moldova and Macedonia) in the McCain camp. Why do people have such strong, uniform feelings? What little they know about McCain, their impression is that he will represent nothing new or different from the last eight years. What little they know about Obama seems to offer them hope. It seems the broader themes Obama’s campaign has been trying to hammer home (McCain = Bush, Obama = Hope and Change) have been grasped by the world at large (or at least the parts of it we’ve come across).

Now, there are some in the world who may favor McCain. We met a Kurdish man in Syria who thought George Bush a “brilliant and beautiful man.” We’ve also found, in the past, that some non-Muslim minorities in Muslim countries who feel oppressed–Christians in Malay Borneo, Balinese–favor Bush, and may favor McCain, possibly because they view Bush as a foe to all Muslims. Al Qaeda seems to favor McCain. But the desire for Obama to win is nearly universal. As you probably already knew this, let us delve into a few more specific topics.

Many (especially Germans, it seems) are curious whether Americans will really elect a black President. I do not know if I can go as far as Kristof in his recent New York Times column on “rebranding” America, but there is no doubt in my mind that the election of Obama will revive in global consciousness America as the land of opportunity and equality, an America with ideals worth looking up to.

Some Muslims, it turns out, believe that Obama is a Muslim, and Indonesians feel a special connection to him because he used to live in Indonesia. As the media reported during the primaries, no doubt Kenyans are especially excited, although perhaps not the Kenyan spiritual warrior who exorcised Palin.

While people are quite optimistic about an Obama presidency, many are also fairly realistic. As strongly as people favor Obama, and as hopeful they are for change, they recognize that certain things won’t change. Arabs know that we won’t pull out immediately from Iraq. Palestinians know that U.S. support for Israel will continue (and many feel that nothing will change for them no matter who wins). Even if people trust that Obama will make wiser decisions than Bush, they know that the U.S. political system will not allow Obama free rein. The only person who responded hopelessly pessimistically, however, was a young Pakistani man from Karachi who said that Pakistanis didn’t care at all (actually, the phrase used was much cruder) about America or its election (which seems foolish given that we are currently attacking part of their territory).

But generally I think that people view Obama as internationally minded, and Bush’s worldview relatively parochial, one of many reasons that they support him.

Many Americans abroad are also excited; we aren’t the only ones who managed to watch debates that took place in the middle of the night local time.. We met one young woman who said that she had somehow arranged to meet her ballot in Kathmandu, so that she could vote while traveling. If you also are currently traveling abroad, it is still possible to vote, as easily as downloading a blank ballot and mailing it in (or going to a consulate or embassy as we did). Instructions are on this site–no excuses!

Cataracts of the Nile

One reads about the “cataracts of the Nile” in history books (always with ordinals, like “the first cataract,” “the second cataract” and so forth), but until I saw the first cataract just south of Aswan it was hard for me to picture them–I thought of something like a series of little Niagaras, walls of water blocking passage north. Now, the first cataract currently lies just on the other side of dams (the old Aswan Dam and the High Dam), and so the sort of rapids or rush of water is no longer there, but seeing the rocks in the water at least helped me visualized what these cataracts are–places that, due to topography, are unnavigable.

One of the wonders, to me, of Egyptian civilization is now much it stayed put along the Nile. There were of course times when Egypt controlled south toward Nubia, west toward Libya and east toward the Levant, but despite its incredible wealth and advancement it was never an expansive empire, instead being controlled by the Persians, the Greeks (or Macedonians), the Romans, the Arabs and the Ottomans. One basic reason for this, I suppose, is that Egyptian civilization was centered on the Nile, and perhaps they saw no reason to stray far from what they saw as the source of all life. In periods of ascendancy Egypt did control regions further south, into Nubia, but the cataracts–areas where the Nile was not navigable–presented a barrier. Were it not for the cataracts, perhaps Egyptian civilization would have traveled all the way to Lakes Tana and Victoria, deep into sub-Saharan Africa.