Dealing with touts in Egypt’s tourist hotspots

It’s a sad fact that tourism in Egypt is in desperate straits at the moment.  The global financial crisis and the recent revolution in Egypt have made people unwilling and afraid to go play meet the Pharaohs.  There’s actually no real reason to fear for your safety in the vast majority of the country – no more than there was before the revolution, anyway.  We had to watch carefully for pickpockets, sure, but otherwise we never felt afraid for our personal security.  (Actually, there was one time a random kid threw a well-aimed stick at the back of my head in Cairo.  But that was, well, strange – and, more to the point, atypical.  I don’t think there’s a plague of stick-throwing seven-year-olds you particularly need to watch out for.  Besides, I’m pretty sure I could have taken him.)

Despite what you might see on the news, it’s not like all of Egypt is holding violent riots every other day:  stay away from the one or two places where political rallies get held (predominantly Tahrir Square in Cairo), and chances are you’ll see nothing but a country peacefully going about its daily life.

But one consequence you definitely will see is the desperation of people on the streets of Egypt’s main tourist centres trying to eke out an existence which relies on tourist dollars that are no longer there.  Sure, market forces mean that you’ll get an absolute bargain on everything – and you’ll find the popular attractions far less crowded with other tourists than you might expect, too.  But assuming you look anything like the standard tourist fare, you’ll also get hassled mercilessly every time you venture outside your hotel.  In fact, if you don’t pick your accommodation carefully, it’s quite possible you’ll get hassled pretty mercilessly by your hotel themselves, too.  Make sure you check recent reviews on TripAdvisor before you book.  Some otherwise perfectly reasonable-seeming places seem to have some pretty unfortunate stories of hotels all but strong-arming guests into guided tours, taxis, transfers, etc., making for a really quite unpleasant stay.  You probably don’t want to end up there.

It’s worth noting at this point that all the advice in here relates to travelling as a normal tourist, doing the normal tourist things in Egypt in mostly-normal tourist ways, like we did.  If you’re way off the beaten track and taking the time to deploy your ninja language skills to blend in like a local, like Benny the Irish Polyglot, then all power to you – most of this is way below your level of awesome, and just won’t apply.

Me above the Valley of the Kings

What an annoying person in Egypt might look like

Once you’re out of your hotel’s front door, chances are you’ll find yourself strolling in a sea of street vendors, each competing vigorously to sell the obvious Westerners (in our case) food and drinks that you don’t want or need.  But at least they’re relatively stuck in one place, tending their stalls.  Mostly, it’s the touts that follow you around that will quickly become the bane of your existence:  the taxis, the horse-and-carriage drivers, the boats, the camels, the souvenir hawkers with their cheap tacky sphinxes with neon flashing lights, etc.  For them, the sheer paucity of potential customers makes it worth their while to shadow you around for ages, so long as there’s the slightest possibility, the remotest outside chance that you might change your mind.  We were hounded by a tout selling camel rides at the pyramids for literally twenty relentless, mind-numbing minutes.  There was simply no one else around for him to try to sell his rides to, and, well, there’s nothing else for him to do, so why not persist against all odds?  Even if it never works, it doesn’t cost him anything to try;  after all, the whole concept of opportunity cost relies on there being some other opportunity in the first place.

And to be honest, as understandable as it might be that the head of a starving family wants to do everything he can to earn some extra money from my assumed ample supply in order to feed his family, and as sympathetic as I’d like to be, it’s a right royal pain in the arse.  I still enjoyed our trip to Egypt, but at times, it sure did feel an awful lot like there were a large variety of people doing their absolute very best to make sure I didn’t.  I like to think we’re reasonably seasoned travellers, and able to shrug off most annoyances, but there were afternoons where, having done the sights we’d planned for that day, we simply didn’t bother venturing beyond the nearest KFC because we just could not be bothered dealing with the hassle.

And further, while most touts are aggressive and somewhat rude, it pains me to say that you really can’t assume that just because someone is polite or understanding or understated, or more affluently dressed, that they’re not trying to lure you into something just as bad as the more obvious in-your-face annoyances you just escaped.  We had a couple of occasions where someone appeared to be helping us out (with directions, or even with chasing touts away) and then after a friendly conversation tried to pressure us into this shop or that.  (Most conspicuously, if someone tells you his daughter is getting married tomorrow, walk away.  For some reason that seems to be a common hook, I suppose to make you feel like you’re being rude if you don’t agree to accept his generosity in showing you x or y, or inviting you in for tea, or whatever.)  So one of the most frustrating things about the whole exercise was to effectively destroy my tendency to assume the best of people – especially those trying to help out.

Anyway, this is my attempt at some advice for other travellers to Egypt.  I really don’t think that, as a fly-through short-term tourist, there’s much if anything you can do to get any less unwanted attention on the streets – although I’ll readily believe that a smattering of Arabic will prove very effective in demonstrating that you’re street-savvy or local enough to be not the standard tourist fare.  But, with any luck, this might help you convince a few antagonisers that you’re not worth the effort to keep hassling.

The single most important thing you can do to make your life easier is to know exactly what you want to do, and roughly how much it should cost (since you’ll be bargaining for everything).  Egypt is not a place where you can just turn up and go with the flow.  A little bit of research on the internet will save you a lot of grief:  the last thing you want to find yourself doing is umm-ing and ahh-ing as someone tries to railroad you into a list of suggested activities he can arrange for you for the low, low price of however many Egyptian pounds, no doubt with a free set of steak knives thrown in.  And, of course, a bit of prior research will also tell you what out-and-out scams you need to avoid.

But no matter how much you have planned, and what you know to do or avoid, though, you’ll still find yourself under siege once your feet hit the footpath.  It’s an unfortunate fact, and one that’s definitely not going to help Egypt’s tourism recover.  But, try telling that to a penniless tout, I suppose.

Lazy dogs sleeping out the heat of the day in the Temples of Karnak

This has nothing to do with anything, but on a lighter note, how funny are these dogs lying lazily in the heat in front of the Temples of Karnak?

So, on to some dispelling of hard-earned wisdom…

First, avoidance.  Obviously, if you can manage not to get approached in the first place, then the potential for hassle just goes away.

  • Choose the footpath on the side of the road with oncoming traffic.  That way, horse-and-carriage drivers and taxis can’t follow you down the road as you walk.
  • Look purposeful.  When you’re in a foreign country seeing the sights, if you’re anything like me, your natural inclination is to wander around checking everything out, stopping for photos, stopping to see what other people are doing, often looking quite aimless.  Unfortunately, there’s really no better way to scream “I’m a tourist and I really don’t know what I want to do or how I should do it, please come and offer to help me decide!”.  Even when you’re just walking the streets seeing what the place is like, you’ll find it worth your while if you try to make it look like you’re not.  You don’t have to bustle intently from one destination to the next carrying a frown and a phone to your ear, but you’ll get a lot less hassle if you look vaguely purposeful.
  • Don’t respond to any suggestion with ‘maybe later’, or give any sort of even vaguely non-negative reply to those same two words as a question.  This somewhat circuitously falls into the avoidance category, but it does belong:  there are so few tourists around that it actually will sometimes be worth some tout’s while to follow you around hassling you for longer trying to organise a time and place for ‘later’ – or even to tail you, or wait outside your hotel or restaurant or shop-you-stepped-into-to-get-away-from-the-annoying-people-on-the-street, until you’re done whatever you’re doing first and ‘later’ has actually arrived.  If you think you do want to do something later, then that’s great:  you’ll have no trouble finding someone who can take your money to do it when ‘later’ rolls around.  In the meantime, you want to avoid hassle now, so keep your future intentions to yourself.

But you certainly can’t avoid everyone.  So, once you’ve found yourself locked in someone’s sights:

  • If you don’t want anything from a tout who’s approaching you, don’t say anything, even to his initial approach.  Just shake your hand ‘no’ and shake your head.  There’s no need to be overtly rude about it – although you’ll probably feel a little uncomfortably impolite the first few times someone asks you a harmless ice-breaker type question (usually “where are you from?”) to goad you into conversation, and you just keep silent.  And there’s no need to pretend that the other person isn’t there.  But it’s a fairly fundamental fact of human nature that it’s much more psychologically difficult to keep talking to a person who isn’t talking back, even when you’re desperate to sell something.  Even your just saying ‘no’ is a level of engagement that makes it much easier for someone to keep on trying.
  • In fact, it probably won’t help to pretend that the other person isn’t there.  If they don’t think you’ve seen them, then they’ll just try harder to get your attention.  Make direct eye contact, and feel free to throw on a friendly smile, but make sure your body language is clear that you’re saying no, and keep moving on without pause.
  • For many touts, the above will get you past with a minimum of fuss.  We found that stopping responding verbally was the single most effective thing we did, even though it made us feel uncomfortable and even arrogant at first.  (And, as a bonus, you may get some entertainment from touts trying to guess what language you speak.  Mostly when I didn’t respond to English, the next choice was German.  But I was impressed to be addressed in what sounded like Swedish on a couple of occasions.  And given that I’m six foot four and very blond, I was sufficiently amused to be spoken to in Spanish several times that I almost broke down and responded.)  But there are some real persistent little buggers, and some will follow you awhile regardless.  At that point, your not-talking efforts have probably run their course.  Stop, turn and face them, and tell them you’re not interested, and would they please leave you alone.  That often won’t work, but if you then keep walking and deliberately ignore them completely from then on, your chances may improve.  Maybe.  Your mileage may vary.  It’s worth mentioning, by the way, that this is the point where you should be most alert for pickpocketing.  The occasions when we had someone attempt to pickpocket us were both after an attempt to sell us something, which we’d refused.  That was when the ‘selling’ became more aggressive as it actually turned into a cover for trying to slide a hand into a pocket or bag.
  • Finally, please, for the love of god, once you’ve said (or, following the advice above, mimed) ‘no’, and they’ve kept on trying, don’t change your mind.  If you’re negotiating over the price of something, then sure, walking away is a perfectly valid tactic, and will work absolute wonders – probably moreso in Egypt these days than anywhere else.  So go for your life.  But if someone’s touting something that you’ve indicated right from the start you don’t want, don’t suddenly change your mind after they’ve followed you down the road for fifty metres.  I don’t want to go all Pavlovian on you here, and especially I don’t want to treat the touts – as annoying as the worst of them can be – as some sort of sub-human brutes to be trained – but the last thing anyone should want to do is encourage the idea that persisting after a clear ‘no’ is worthwhile.
McDelivery in Aswan!

On a more enjoyable note, look what else they have on the streets of Egypt. Why doesn’t McDonald’s deliver in any of the countries I’ve ever lived in?!

And of course, sometimes you do actually want to part with some money and get something, whether it be bottles of water from the nearest street vendor or convenience store, or something a little shinier and gaudier to sit ignored on your mantelpiece for the next ten years.  (Speaking of stores, by the way, the vast majority won’t have marked prices, and will require bargaining from the initial rip-off tourist price you get quoted just like with the street vendors.  If you find a store with marked prices, I heartily encourage you to buy from there.  You’ll probably pay a little more than you could negotiate on the street, but the extra price is worth not having to expend that effort every time, and if that behaviour encourages more places to switch to signed prices, then so much the better.)

  • As above, know roughly what price you think you should pay in advance.  The initial price you’ll be offered will be some multiple – three, five, ten, fifty – of that price, and it won’t be consistent.  So you can’t just assume that your starting point in the negotiations should be, say, a tenth of whatever you’re first offered.  You’ll need to know.  I can’t remember what prices we paid for common things, to be honest, so I won’t give you a list here.  But a bit of googling should give you a good indication (the Lonely Planet forums and TripAdvisor are pretty handy resources, especially), or failing that, ask some other tourists.  If you do know what price you’re after, you have two options:  either start with something lower and work up, or offer your price and walk away if they refuse.  I normally went with the latter – it’s quicker, and they’ll almost always relent unless you’re offering something unreasonable.  In which case:  stop being a dick and just pay the poor guy a fair price.
  • Often, you’ll be well served not to make a counter-offer at all.  Just ask how much, and then when you get quoted something laughable, laugh and walk away.  Nine times out of ten you’ll be followed down the street and offered lower and lower prices as you go.  Those prices will converge towards something reasonable after a little while.  Offer that, and you’re probably set.  This worked pretty well for us for ferry rides across the Nile, in particular.  Sometimes, you’ll find you’re ending up with what feels like a ridiculously, unreasonably low price.  The three of us got ferried across the Nile on a private boat for five Egyptian pounds once – that’s around fifty British pence, or eighty Australian or US cents.  And I wouldn’t be surprised if we were the driver’s only customers for the day.  I have no idea how he can make a living that way – he probably can’t, but he doesn’t have any other options.  If you find yourself in that scenario, where you’re offered a much lower price than you’re willing to pay, again, don’t be a dick – once you get there, pay more.  You’re not trying to break their balls and deny them a living just because they’re annoying in their desperation.  You’re trying to avoid getting opportunistically ripped off.
  • This sounds stupid, but make sure you confirm that the price you’re being quoted is in Egyptian pounds.  Evidently a popular scam with some touts is to give you your boat or ferry ride or taxi trip or whatever and then express surprise that you didn’t realise that the quoted price was in British pounds (around ten times more expensive).  Once you’ve already taken the trip, you’re in a much worse position to insist that no, you’re only paying the price in the currency that was obviously actually intended.

Finally, if you do find yourself overly harassed, or in trouble with an aggressive tout, or whatever, there are always the tourist police, whom you’ll see around and about on the streets and at the major tourist sites.  They’ll be the ones with the big guns which they may or may not be using as pillows at the time.  (Seriously, at the Tombs of the Workers in Luxor, we actually saw one of the tourist police having a nap and using his AK-47 – or whatever they are – to rest his sleepy head.  Gives you a lot of confidence in their ability to safely handle their weapons under slightly more stressful circumstances, no?)  We never had cause to seek them out, and from what I can gather, they’re of varying usefulness (and are varyingly corrupt).  But you might find a knight in shining armour – and even if you don’t, the threat of the tourist police might be the final straw that gets rid of a particularly annoying aggressor.

The sun setting behind the Pyramid of Khafre, with the Great Pyramid of Giza on the right and the Pyramid of Menkaure on the left

Why you might want to go to Egypt despite the hassle. How cool are pyramids?

So, I hope the above all helps someone.  I hope it doesn’t put you off travelling to Egypt.  (Although, if it does, you might want to consider Petra in Jordan instead – blog post to come.  It’s not the pyramids, but it’s pretty much as awesome, and after our experiences in Egypt, we found the touts there so friendly and respectful that we wanted to go give them all a big hug.)  But it might help you to be a good boy scout and be prepared.  If so, job done.  Enjoy your travels.

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