In defiance of his own nation’s restrictions, Cornelis Hulsman not only went to Siwa, he invited international student interns, Egyptian nationals, media professionals, and just about everyone else in Egypt to travel with him.
“Western travel advice to Siwa is insane,” said Hulsman, the Dutch deputy head of the Center for Arab West Understanding (CAWU). “We are taking this trip to make a statement. You say it is unsafe, we’ll show you it is safe.”
On the surface, insanity might look a lot like prudence. Siwa, an oasis in Egypt’s Western Desert, is only 50-70 kilometers from the porous border with Libya. Last year in the Bahariya Oasis, 400 kilometers southeast, eight Mexican tourists were killed accidentally by an Egyptian army hunting for militants. In Sinai on the opposite border, an Islamist insurgency continues to plague the peninsula, with terrorist attacks sporadically spilling over into the mainland. And in broader context, Russia and Britain have restricted flights to Egypt after a Russian airliner crashed in the Sinai desert on October 31, 2015, with responsibility claimed by the Islamic State.
Many nations have responded by issuing various travel restrictions to Egypt in general, and CAWU has compiled a complete list. But The Netherlands, France, and Canada have specifically included Siwa, and Hulsman believes this is preposterous. The successful return of his trip of 29 suggest he may be right. So also do the daily and nightly buses departing from Cairo.
Off the beaten path of traditional Egyptian tourism, Siwa’s remoteness has always been the chief hindrance preventing development of the sector. Ten hours is required to move from Cairo to the North Coast, over to Marsa Matrouh, and then 300 kilometers south through barren and desolate desert.
But compared to Alexander the Great’s eight day journey in 331 BC it is practically instantaneous. Modern day travelers can see the ruins of the Temple of Jupiter Amun, whose oracle declared Alexander a god and blessed him in conquest of the world. They can also visit natural hot springs and sand baths, as well as mingle among the only Berber culture indigenous to Egypt. The Siwan people have guarded their independence for centuries and still speak their own language.
Hulsman has looked for opportunities to link CAWU’s internship program with local organizations such as the Desert Research Center. ‘Amr ‘Abd al-Hamīd, head of the DRC in Marsa Matrouh, told him the government has been cutting funding. But universities in countries applying a travel ban to Siwa are prohibited from sending students to restricted area. Interns on Hulsman’s trip went in their personal capacity, not as part of his official program.
But normal tourists are scared off on their own. One issue is insurance, explained Muhammad Hassan, the owner of Siwa Shali Resort, with 36 years of experience in the tourism industry. If anything goes wrong, whether terrorism or a simple car accident, a policy will not be honored if the tourist went against his own nation’s warning. Egyptian insurance is available, says Hulsman, but would the average tourist know how to find it?
At the height of the Egyptian tourism boom in 2010 and before the Arab Spring, 30,000 international tourists spent part of their summer in Egyptian Mediterranean resorts, Hassan said. Eight thousand of these chose to continue on to Siwa. But by 2015 traffic dried up almost entirely, and only an estimated 300 foreigners visited Siwa from abroad. In 2016, no one.
“When you issue warnings like this, you are waging war against our primary economic sector,” Hassan said. “You harm not the government, but the people, who then get angry with the government. I’m not being political, I’m just a businessman.”
There is no military or police authorization needed to reach Siwa, Hassan noted, though several checkpoints are set up between Marsa Matrouh and Siwa to check identification. But to go into the desert on a safari to surf the dues needs three. He first secures license from military intelligence, border patrol, and the local police before dispatching any tourist.
And the military is in constant surveillance of the desert area between Siwa and Libya, Hassan said. Terrorists go where the land is empty, which might be a problem further south. He has no problem with a travel restriction issued for Jilf al-Kabīr in southwest Egypt, for example, where Libya, Chad, and Sudan come together.
Hulsman also noted the different security atmosphere in Siwa. Apart for the normal tourist policeman assigned to the bus, there was no police convoy. Traveling to Upper Egypt, however, he has had vehicles travel in front or behind.
Similar was the on the ground experience. In Upper Egypt police ask that any large group be kept together, as easier to secure. But the foreigners and Egyptians alike freely roamed the grounds during an annual Sufi festival in Siwa, chatting with locals and wandering off with them. The security apparatus is much more relaxed there than elsewhere, Hulsman said, confident in the area’s safety.
Unfortunately, this is a reality lost on many Western governments. Mounir Neamatalla, Siwa’s wealthiest investor and owner of the Adrere Amellal: Desert Ecolodge that welcomed Prince Charles in 2006, is eager to change this. In early October he flew an 80-plus mostly foreign delegation to Siwa, including ten heads and deputy heads of diplomatic missions. But the message has not yet filtered through to decision makers in Western foreign ministries, and the travel restrictions remain.
Not for long, if Hulsman has his way. And now he has 29 more who can attest to his vision.
This article was first published at Arab West Report.