CAIRO: “I am used to seeing new faces and having new friends everyday but since the 25 January Revolution, I do not see that many tourists which makes me feel lonely.”
Barbara, 56, is a widow, and a member of Egypt’s minority Christian population, who lives in the heart of Old Cairo right in front of St. Barbara church and a few steps from Cairo’s Synagogue of Ben Ezra.
Streets paved with limestone blocks snake through the neighborhood of Mar Girgis, which holds most of Cairo’s ancient churches, and the last of its synagogues. Ben Ezra hasn’t held a steady praying congregation for over a generation, instead hosting a stream of foreign and international tourists, which have slowly dwindled with the country’s limping economy and depressed tourism sector .
Barbara was born and raised in a 50-sq meter apartment that she inherited from her parents who died a few years after her marriage. When her husband died in 2006, she decided to move back with her children, a son and two daughters, and live where she grew up, as she could not afford to pay for the rent of her husband’s apartment.
“This home has pleasant memories that are still deeply rooted in my mind. I still very well remember when I was about 10 year old and helping tourists, visiting Old Cairo churches, finding their way around,” said Barbara.
None of her children, now all married, live nearby but they often visit her every Friday, she said.
Barbara is well-known in the neighborhood, and many tours of the area made a routine of stopping in for tea and conversation, and possibly using her restroom, an amenity not available in any of the nearby churches, synagogue and shops.
“I can see the curiosity in the eyes of the tourists I invite for a drink. It is their first time to visit an Egyptian apartment and most of them seem curious to know about Egyptian culture and social life,”said Barbara.
According to the National Accounts Division of the Ministry of Tourism, income from tourism in Egypt for the first quarter of 2014 decreased to $1.3 billion, down 43% from the same period last year.
According to the Ministry of Planning and International Cooperation, tourist activity comprises 11.3% of GDP. Figures by the Sub-Accounts Unit of the Ministry of Tourism, state there are 3.8 million workers in the tourism sector, 1.7 million of whom are directly employed by the sector, and 1.8 million indirectly.
The losses in the sector are estimated at $6.8 billion in the past three years and tourism revenues fell to only $5.9 billion in 2013, down 41 percent from 2012, according to the Tourism Ministry’s report issued in March.
Egypt depends on tourism for around 20 percent of its hard currency. The sector’s total investments are valued at $9.8 billion, according to the Ministry of Tourism.
Barbara’s interaction with tourists began 7 years ago, she said, when a tour guide asked her if one of his guests would be able to use her washroom.
“Of course, let her come in,” she said, adding that she offered the lady tissues.
“When she came out of the wash room, she thanked me a lot, insisted to take pictures with me. I invited her to drink tea and when she left, I found and envelope with $50. I was so happy.”
Barbara’s small apartment consists of a reception area, a bedroom, kitchen and small washroom. The ceiling is about 4.5 meters high, affording her space for a loft, accessible by a ladder and a small .75 sq meter hole.
“The upper room is where Mena, my son used to sleep before he was married 10 years ago,” said Barbara.
“Many tourists took my mailing address and sent me the pictures we took in my house along with post cards, calendars and souvenirs,” said Barbara.
The drop in tourism has dried up the flow of tourists to her neighborhood, and most of the guides who know her rarely get enough work to visit her, she said.
“I hope tourism picks up again for the interest of the Egyptian economy and those millions of people lost their jobs and livelihood including myself”
“When tourism flourishes, the whole economy flourishes accordingly. Several people that seem to have no relation with tourism are happy when it picks up.”
worship, that mar girgis still hosts most churches in Cairo, etc.