Magazine article Geographical

Cast Adrift

Magazine article Geographical

Cast Adrift

Article excerpt

Sailing a felucca was once a good way to earn a living in Aswan. But since the revolution of 2011, tourists have stayed away from this sleepy town in Upper Egypt and the captains have seen their income dry up.

You don't need statistics to tell you that tourists have all but deserted Aswan; the city's seemingly never-ending Corniche is lined with people out of work, from boat captains to horse-carriage drivers, from waiters to guides. Row after row of cruise ships remain moored to the riverbank, their decks empty, their deck chairs stacked.

Since the beginning of the revolution in 2011, Egypt's tourism industry has been devastated; a comparison of figures from pre-2011 with those of 2013 reveal a loss of revenue of about US$4.1billion. The overthrow of the Muslim Brotherhood's Mohamed Morsi in July 2013, combined with mass demonstrations, increased terrorist threats and the issuing of severe travel warnings by Western governments have crippled an industry that represents 11.3 per cent of the country's GDP.

Although some parts of the country, mainly the coastal resorts, are still receiving some visitors, it would be difficult to find anywhere in Egypt that's suffering more than Aswan. A border town in Pharaonic times, its location on the banks of the Nile in the country's southeast was once its appeal. But now, in many ways, this is its curse--too far for day trippers from the popular Red Sea resorts and a plane journey too far from the capital.

An estimated 12.5 per cent of Egypt's population of more than 80 million people relies on tourism as a means of income. In Aswan, this figure is closer to 40 per cent and for those who depend on foreign visitors, there is no Plan B.


One of the many groups affected is the captains of the feluccas, the traditional sailing boats, who earn their living taking tourists up and down one of the most picturesque stretches of the Nile. The ease with which the captains control these heavy boats is impressive; there's no outboard motor or modern nautical equipment, but they appear to have an innate understanding of the river's movements and the desert winds after years of observing their fathers.

Khaled Arafat, a felucca captain for more than 28 years, is very much at the centre of this community. Loved by all despite his open mocking of fellow crew members, his mischievous nature and his clear disregard for authority, Khaled, like many others, started working on feluccas at an early age--in his case ten--initially making tea for the crew and scrubbing the decks, before slowly being given more responsibility. Today, his boat, Prince Arafat, is one of the largest in Aswan and stands as a testament to his ability both as a captain and as a salesman.

Before 2011, Khaled was contracted to a French travel company that guaranteed him three or four groups a month in addition to tips, an essential form of income in the industry. In a good season, the basic salary without tips amounted to more than 800 Egyptian pounds (70 [pounds sterling]) per week (the average weekly wage in Egypt is E650 [pounds sterling]).

He had put a deposit down for a new, bigger apartment and had just bought a motorboat to expand his operations to three vessels. He had a team of 20, most of whom came from his village, and was able to share his wealth during religious feasts and festivals, an important duty in Islam.


In little more than three years, the situation has changed dramatically; he now has no regular income, and in some months, he receives nothing at all. He lives in one room with his wife and four children and has taken back his deposit for the flat.

The boat he bought sits rotting in the water, its engine long since sold for a fraction of its value. He has had to let more than half of his crew go, all of them with families of their own to support. Eid al-Adha, the largest feast in the Muslim calendar, has barely been acknowledged for three years. …

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