Boosting tourism in Egypt: Developing a more enhanced, local experience
Steps away from Bab Zuweila, one of the last-standing ancient gates to Historic Cairo, is a narrow alleyway lined with vibrant fabric and handmade artisanal items. Known as Sharia Khayamiya (Street of the Tentmakers), where one-of-a-kind handcrafts have been designed, made and sold since the 17th century, it is a living testament to Egypt’s rich cultural heritage.
The area’s name is taken from the Arabic word for the intricately appliquéd textiles used to decorate the interior of tents. Ayda Abdullah, who has a shop in the middle of Khayamiya, spends hours every day making pillows, mattresses, table runners and other specialty cloth items.
“People working in this ages-old market do everything by themselves, from designing a product to actually producing it,” Abdullah says. “Nothing is manufactured. Everything is handmade, which means more hours are put in to produce high-quality traditional products representative of Egypt’s historic culture.”
Abdullah has been running the shop on her own for the past 10 years, since the death of her husband. She supports her three children, and her livelihood depends entirely on tourism, which was hit hard by the COVID-19 pandemic. Now, she is struggling to promote her business.
“I realize I have a role to play in cultural tourism, but I am also aware of some impediments in pursuing that role, including marketing skills and platforms for exposure,” she says. “I cannot market my work and I am at the mercy of merchants. I also have a hard time purchasing raw materials as they are very expensive.”
Abdullah will be participating in a workshop, hosted by the Integrated Management of Cultural Tourism (IMCT) project, to hone her skills. Funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development and implemented by FHI 360, IMCT is endeavoring to create more authentic experiences for people traveling to Egypt while bolstering the country’s tourism industry and improving the quality of life for those living and working in Historic Cairo and Luxor Governorate.
FHI 360 is collaborating with the government of Egypt to improve the sustainability of the sector and forging public-private partnerships to help stimulate investment in cultural heritage sites and nearby businesses. But the communities around those sites — the voices of local shop owners and employees — are guiding the project’s work. In November 2021, FHI 360 held community engagement workshops, inviting local artisans, shop owners, employees and aspiring entrepreneurs to share their greatest challenges and goals around strengthening and growing their businesses.
Using the information gleaned at those sessions, FHI 360 will host trainings to help community members build their skills in areas considered most important for success — marketing, branding, product design, communications, storytelling and English. FHI 360 has also partnered with the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development to connect local business owners with microfinance institutions for the funding they need to develop high-quality products and expand their operations.
“I have great hope that through the project I will be able to have a sales outlet and great marketing skills to promote my work from my own stance, sell my products away from merchants and earn a decent living,” says Abdullah.
Community coordinators like Hayam Abdel Ma’soud ensure that the biggest needs and priorities of the communities are understood.
“Marketing is one of the major impediments that people here in Historic Cairo face,” says Ma’soud. “They do not really have their own sales outlets to market and sell their products. They are not even linked to expos to showcase their products. Many local artisans and business owners working in heritage and cultural tourism are deciding to move on from their current work, given the low levels of revenue.”
Five minutes down the street from Abdullah’s shop, Eid Saleh hand-knots carpets and rugs using the art of Egyptian and Iranian embroidery. Often he will sit for eight hours straight to produce a single knotted line. It is tedious work, and turning a profit is rarely guaranteed. Most of his creations are sold through merchants, who take a steep cut of his earnings.
“I need as many people as I can find to know me and realize the piece of work I’m producing,” he says. “I am very keen on attending the IMCT marketing and communications workshops. I believe these workshops will provide me with the perfect skill set to promote myself and my work and help me retain my workers in this valuable industry.”
Through IMCT, FHI 360 will support about 500 shop owners and employees like Saleh and Abdullah, helping them to reap the rewards of their unique crafts, engage with tourists and ensure the preservation of heritage sites for decades to come.