CAIRO: For over three years now, the downturn of Egypt’s tourism sector has been catastrophic not only on the country’s economy and its supply of hard currency, but also on millions of people whose livelihood depends on tourists.
Saber Abdel Gleel Arafa, 56, a gatekeeper at the Red Pyramid 30 kilometers south of Giza, is desperate for any sign of improvement in tourism and his deteriorating financial situation.
“This has been the worst and the most sustained decline in the number of tourists since I started working as a gatekeeper at Cheops Pyramid at Giza in 1979,” Arafa said.
An antiquity gatekeeper, better known in Egypt as a “Ghafir,” is appointed by the Ministry of Antiquities. In addition to guarding the archaeological site, a Ghafir is tasked with checking the entrance ticket of a visitor and cutting a small piece of it so that it is not used by other travelers.
“Before the [January 25] Revolution, the number of tourists visiting Dahshour every day—around 50-60—is small compared to those who visit Giza Pyramids. The Antiquities Ministry pays me 480 EGP ($70) per month, and I mainly depend on tips from tourists after they visit the Red Pyramid,” Arafa said.
Only 16 people visited Dahshour on Wednesday, Arafa said, who added that this job is his only source of income.
The number of tourists visiting Egypt decreased by 23.7 percent in June 2014 compared with June 2010, according to the Central Agency for Public Mobilization and Statistics (CAPMAS), Egypt’s official statistical agency.
Dahshour is on the southern tip of the Giza Necropolis, the seat of over 27 royal pyramids of the Old Kingdom (2686 B.C. – 2181 B.C.). It is known for two of the most ancient Egyptian Pyramids: the Red Pyramid and the Bent Pyramid.
“I take tourists in a short tour inside the pyramid, give them a torch to see the carvings and at the end of the 10-minute tour, most of them ask me to take a picture with them. I never ask for tipping but most of them tip me a few pounds at the end of the tour,” he added.
A tour inside Dahshour Pyramid is exhausting, as tourists have to take 72 steps up to reach the entrance at the middle of the pyramid, Arafa said. They still have to lean down and go through an 82-step, 65-meter descending corridor to reach the burial chamber of the pyramid.
“I do this around 15 times every day and it made my leg muscles strong,” Arafa said.
Arafa is married with six children ranging in ages from 13 to 30.
“I live in the village of Dahshour, 30 minutes walking from the site, but I go to work by “toktok” (rickshaw). My work starts at 7 a.m. with signing the attendance sheet at the Tourism and Antiquities Police office by the entrance of the site, and then they give me the Red Pyramid key to open it for tourists, who usually start showing up around 8 a.m.,” Arafa said.
In the past, tourism rebounded quickly from several disasters, including a deadly militant attack in 1997 in Luxor, which claimed the lives of over 45 tourists.
“But this time, it seems it will take a long time before it picks up again, as it seems tourists from overseas lost confidence in Egyptian authorities to restore security,” Arafa said.
Just as it is not clear how long tourists will avoid Egypt as a tourist destination, for 7 million tourism employees, it is also unclear how they will survive. There are also other concerns created by the post-revolution instability.
Arafa said since the outbreak of the January 25 Revolution, illicit digging within the archaeological site of Dahshour has increased dramatically.
The security lapse has not only brought political turmoil, but also profitable opportunities for illegal diggers and trade collectors hunting for ancient Egyptian antiques and treasures.
“Since I am positioned at the pyramid’s entrance, which is 45 meters above ground, on the morning of Jan. 29, 2011, I was able to see an armed gang driving a 4X4 and heading to the south of the Bent Pyramid. Before sunset, a friend of mine and I went to see what was going on and we found several vertical shafts dug near the bent pyramid,” Arafa said.
Despite efforts by the Egyptian government to track artifacts smuggled outside Egypt and in auction houses abroad, the issue is still unsettled.
Arafa called on the Ministry of Antiquities to provide him and his fellow gatekeepers at monument sites with guns to discourage looting.
“Apart from the site’s main entrance, which is well secured by tourism and antiquities policemen, Dahshour is accessible through three other roads through the desert and we must be armed in order to defend our lives and the Egyptian monuments,” Arafa said.