Giza (Egypt), Feb 11 (DPA) Forlorn are the caravansaries and bazaars at the Pyramids of Giza.
Dozens of horses, lined up along a wall, munch leisurely on grass and bales of hay. A young camel wallows in the dust, oblivious to its surroundings. In the few shops and cafes that are open, workers wield fly swatters against pesky insects.
Mainly they are killing time.
The pyramids, closed to tourists after anti-government unrest broke out Jan 25 in Egypt, reopened Wednesday. But hardly any tourists have returned in the first days.
“You’re my second customer today,” remarks Mohammed, a tour guide, as he helps a DPA correspondent onto a horse.
The midday winter sun shines softly. Earlier Thursday, Mohammed says, he showed a Briton around. There was an American the day before.
That same day, tensions in Egypt only escalated as President Hosni Mubarak disappointed expectations that he would step down, instead transferring powers to his vice president while vowing to stay until his term expires in September.
A bypath leads from Mohammed’s stable to the pyramids. A tourist police officer is delighted to see the rare visitor, whom a security official searches for weapons.
The route passes an empty, light-brown patch of sand – the parking area for tour buses – then over gently undulating dunes.
Ahead loom one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. Thick clouds cast eerie shadows on the pyramids, in a spectacle courtesy of weather conditions in late winter.
Here and there in the distance appears a camel with a tourist on its back.
Three Japanese women, led on horseback, approach. Three high-spirited young Saudis gallop past over stones and desert sand. In all, just a few tourists dot the vast expanse.
Mohammed, 30, who says he has two children and 20 years’ experience as a guide, tries to look on the bright side: “You see? Reopened a day ago, and already tourists. I pray to God that they all come back.”
Anti-government rallies started in late January, and the unrest stoked has damaged the Egyptian tourist industry enormously. More than one million tourists were in the country when the protests started, and most left earlier than planned as protests spread across the country.
Almost all of an estimated 35,000 German holiday-makers have gone home, too, and no one is taking their places. For the time being, major tour operators have stricken Egypt from their programme.
This is an economic body blow to the land along the banks of the Nile. With annual revenues estimated at $14.7 billion, tourism accounts for 11 percent of Egypt’s gross domestic product and provides 10 percent of its jobs.
The first local tourism companies have begun to lay off workers, an alarming development in a country where the unemployment rate is 34 percent for people ages 25 and under.
Those Gizans who still have a job want to appear apolitical. Many Egyptians have not forgotten, however, that horsemen and camel drivers from their ranks were among the civilian thugs who rode into throngs at Cairo’s Tahrir Square Feb 2 and used sticks to beat peaceful protestors.
Mohammed was not one of them, he says. But he rails against the popular Qatar-based satellite news channel al-Jazeera for painting a “false picture” of Egypt and frightening away tourists.
On the other hand, the social injustices in his country give him food for thought. “A few people at the top have everything,” he notes, “and the others nothing.”