Best Bet for Best Picture Lures Tourists to Egypt

By William Arnold Seattle Post-Intelligencer | THE JOURNAL RECORD, March 19, 1997 | Go to article overview

Best Bet for Best Picture Lures Tourists to Egypt


William Arnold Seattle Post-Intelligencer, THE JOURNAL RECORD


CAIRO -- If the 12 nominations for The English Patient aren't enough to ensure its status as front-runner for the best picture Oscar, the film is also fulfilling another tradition of past best picture winners: It has inspired a boom of tourism for its romantic setting.

Ever since the 1935 winner, Mutiny on the Bounty, turned Tahiti into a major tourist destination in the `30s, best-picture winners - - which tend to be big historical epics set in exotic places -- have had a remarkable way of sending legions of movie-influenced travelers on pilgrimages.

The 1958 winner, Bridge on the River Kwai, for instance, overnight turned the River Kwai-Kanchanaburi prison camp site into Thailand's third largest tourist draw, and 40 years later it still is, with a sound and light show simulating the film's effects for visitors. Similarly, the 1962 winner, Lawrence of Arabia, is credited with single-handedly creating Jordan's tourist industry. More recently, the 1981 winner, Gandhi, did wonders for India's tourism; the 1985 winner, Out of Africa, transformed Isak Dinesen's former estate into Nairobi's single most popular attraction; and the 1993 winner, Schindler's List, has drawn hundreds of thousands to Poland's former concentration camps. (The Polish government even sponsors a "Schindler's Poland" tour.) The English Patient is doing the same for Egypt, even though the film's lush, sensuous scenes of the Egyptian desert were not filmed in Egypt at all, but in Tunisia. (Historically, this incongruity doesn't seem to have much effect on the phenomenon: Kwai was filmed in Ceylon, Bounty off Catalina Island.) But what makes this case even more unusual is that the movie is creating tourist interest not so much in Egypt's famous archeological attractions (even though the film's hero is an archeologist), as in that specific period of history that has been so long downplayed by the country's tourist authority: the 70 or so years before 1952 that Egypt spent as part of the British Empire. As one Egyptian government tour guide told me, "It's really quite amazing. Since the movie came out, I've had a hundred foreign tourists ask me to show them Shepheard's Hotel or the old British section of Cairo or the location of the Cave of Swimmers. I don't even know where those places are. We're totally unprepared for this." If this sudden interest in the once forbidden subject of British Egypt is making the government of Hosni Mubarak vaguely uncomfortable, no one in it is complaining. Since Islamic fundamentalists declared war on foreign tourists in 1992, Egypt's most vital industry (and greatest source of foreign exchange) had been on life support. But the tourist industry made a spectacular comeback in 1996, with a record 3.8 million visitors, even though the tourist body count continues to rise. The office of Tourism Minister Mamduh Beltagui concedes The English Patient has "probably played a part" in this success. Meanwhile, the Cairo government is having to deal with its own domestic equivalent of The English Patient phenomenon: A wave of fascination for the British Era has swept over the country in recent years -- especially since the 1994 assassination attempt on Nobel Prize-winning novelist Naguib Mahfouz. In her definitive book on the rise of militant Islam, God Has 99 Names, former New York Times Middle East chief Judith Miller claims the reign of terror waged against Egypt's secularists has created "a palpable nostalgia" for "the British-backed monarchy that... ruled between 1922 and the 1952 coup -- a period that only in retrospect became known as Egypt's `enlightenment.'" But what is left of that once-scorned colonial world for the traveler to experience? Certainly not Shepheard's Hotel, the legendary hostelry that was the social center of British Egypt from the day Samuel Shepheard founded it in 1841. When I found my way to Cairo's teeming Midan Opera, where the hotel reigned for a century, it was long gone -- destroyed in an anti-British riot in 1952. …

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