The nineteenth and twentieth centuries saw the gradual emergence of tourism on a global scale. The MENA region, boasting diverse archaeological sites, temperate climates, and the lure of remnants from ancient civilizations, became sites of international tourism. Alongside tourists, MENA governments, colonial entrepreneurs, and local elites all played pivotal roles in the development of tourist industries. Tourism advocates in the region lauded supposed benefits of tourism to local populations and investors, raising hopes of profit, economic development, equitable distribution of wealth, and new sources of civilizational glory through heritage infrastructure. In some domestic settings, local media outlets and elites joined in, promoting tourism as a nationalist project. But did tourism yield development, peace and friendship across cultures, as the rhetoric of tourism claimed it would?
This panel contributes to a small but growing body of literature on tourism and development in the Middle East. While much of the scholarship tends to strictly focus on the political economy of tourism development in a contemporary setting, the papers here expand the subfield’s thematic connections and temporal range. This panel seeks to interrogate the role of tourism in the MENA region domestically and challenge the rosy rhetoric of tourism through five case studies from different geographical sites and times: Mandatory Iraq (1921-1932), mid to late-nineteenth century Egypt, interwar Tunisia, independent Lebanon (1943-1975), and the period surrounding the 2011 Egyptian revolution (2009-2014). The panel is concerned with three major interventions that place tourism as a political site and claim-making device. Firstly, the panel seeks to challenge tourism rhetoric by exploring tourism as a set of largely unfulfilled promises to domestic populations. Individual papers will discuss the tourism industry’s entanglement in the rise of capitalism and neoliberalism, the commodification of heritage, colonialism, and other political stakes. Secondly, the panel discusses tourism as a site of top-down violence, either by colonial authorities or independent governments and its institutions. Individual papers highlight tourism’s extractive and exploitative role in domestic settings, exploring the unequal power dynamics between non-elite, local populations and various colonial or national authorities. Thirdly, the panel discusses tourism as a site of contestation, focusing on how top-down efforts to develop tourism sometimes triggered grassroots resistance and conflict between governments and their peoples. Rather than privileging the role of Western tourists and global narratives, the panel is grounded in how such global changes affected the MENA region and how local actors appropriated tourism for their own benefits.
In 1961, a muezzin of the town of Baalbek recited the call to prayer on an evening in July. The muezzin extended his prayer to last a full twelve minutes, playing over the sounds of the European music coming from the prestigious International Baalbek Festival held in the ruins nearby. Tanks and armed soldiers were stationed around the concert and its cosmopolitan festival-goers, presumably to defend them from the inhabitants of the town. The festival’s rhetoric, however, evoked the supposed benefits of tourism for the local population and their supposed gratitude for the presence of both tourism and the festival.
The rise of Lebanon’s tourism industry inspired hopes of a better future and promised development and the equitable distribution of tourism revenues across class and rural-urban divides. After Lebanese independence, the media and the tourism industry framed the growth of tourism as a nationalist project that required all hands on deck. Baalbek, Lebanon’s fifth largest town, boasting the country’s most impressive archaeological site, seemed on track to reap the benefits of tourism development. But did the promises of tourism result in real policies and development projects in Baalbek?
This paper interrogates the promises of tourism and the prevailing myth of Lebanon’s golden years of tourism by centering the town of Baalbek as a case study from independence to the Civil War (1943-1975). Using archival correspondence, newspapers, guidebooks, and maps, the paper argues that the rhetoric of tourism failed the inhabitants of Baalbek. The Lebanese state favored tourists and the archeological ruins over the people of Baalbek in its development projects, and neglected the town’s appeals in newspapers for better infrastructure, electricity and public health measures. But beyond such failures, it traces how guidebooks, the International Baalbek Festival and the Lebanese state either rendered the locals invisible, or painted them as the illegitimate custodians of the ruins obstructing the success of Lebanese tourism. Adopting and adapting its own “tourist gaze” (Urry, 1990) classifying Baalbek as commodifiable and profitable heritage, the Lebanese state removed houses and froze building laws, and in the mid-1960s unsuccessfully attempted to remove and relocate the entire town along with its undesirable inhabitants away from the ruins. The paper seeks to recover voices from Baalbek, exploring tourism as a site of contention in which locals at times challenged the industry and its rhetoric through obstructing the Baalbek Festival and writing petitions and appeals.
In April 1931, Gaston Doumergue, the president of France (r. 1924-1931), travelled to Kairouan and attended a major touristic festival. The festival offered pay-per-view spectacles like the performance of Sufi rites and a “Grande Fantasia,” which featured a competition among tribal horsemen, a bridal ceremony, a camel troop raid, Arabic music, snake charmers, Black musicians, and magicians. The entrance fee for attending the Sufi rites was 5 francs and 10 francs for the Grande Fantasia. This festival was typical of “ethnographic” sightseeing, which, by 1931, was one of the main sub-sectors of Tunisia’s emerging tourism industry, alongside wintering and thermal stations, archeological sightseeing, automobile excursions, and cruises. 1931 marked 50 years since the founding of French protectorate in Tunisia. It was also an occasion to take stock of the concomitant rise of an organized tourism industry there—a reckoning that was chronicled in Le Journal des Touristes, a Tunis-based tourism trade magazine edited by the French journalist Armand Ravelet. Primarily drawing on accounts in this magazine that described the establishment of hospitality amenities and opportunities for ethnographic and archaeological sightseeing, I argue that this industry was a colonial-capitalist enterprise that advanced French imperialism in interwar Tunisia. Tourism was deeply intertwined with other colonial-capitalist enterprises built on extractive practices. Entrepreneurs active in the tourism industry often had experience in other industries like the transport, finance, and agriculture. And as with North Africa’s agricultural resources, colonial entrepreneurs justified their commodification of Tunisian natural resources—human and non-human alike—on the basis that Tunisians had failed to do so adequately for themselves. A colonial-capitalist enterprise, the modern Tunisian tourism industry was initially developed by colonists for colonists. This paper would thus aim to engage with histories of capitalism and scholarship critical of dominant modes of “economic development,” which have often done more to support colonial-capitalist projects of value extraction from colonized populations than to improve their socio-economic well-being.
Iraq in the aftermath of Britain’s invasion during World War I was the site of a transformative shift in the meaning of colonial development. As Priya Satia has argued, British cultural ideas during the Great War presented Iraq “as a fallen cradle of civilization where development would hail a new age of miracles.” (Satia, 2013). Expanding on recent scholarship, this paper argues that Iraq during the Mandatory period continued to be framed as an object of colonial development. Unlike war-time rhetoric—which emphasized the military transportation infrastructure’s potential to usher in this change—British, and increasingly Iraqi, observers now also pointed to the tourism industry as a possible tool for developing the country. To achieve development through tourism, as this paper shows, British and Iraqi advocates pointed to Iraq’s past as the key to its future.
Using British government archives, corporate records, and travel accounts alongside Iraqi press sources, memoirs, and government printed site-specific promotional literature, this paper reveals how proponents of tourism understood Iraq’s heritage as a resource for actualizing its tourism potential. As a rhetorical device, they pointed to its long history as a crossroads for overland trade as evidence of Iraq’s potential to become a lynchpin of global mobility once more. More tangibly, they believed that the material remains of past civilizations—including monumental ruins, active excavation sites, and antiquities housed in Baghdad’s museum—could serve as powerful incentives for leisure travelers. Though this paper traces similarities in British and Iraqi perspectives on tourism, it also reveals key differences in how they understood its role in securing the country’s future. British defenders of the Mandate of Iraq believed in tourism promotion as one way for the Empire to nominally fulfill its commitments made to the League of Nations while also providing a moral justification to colonial rule, regardless of tourism’s actual success in the country. Over time, Iraqi politicians, scholars, and journalists embraced tourism as a genuine pathway to development, strengthening the economy and instilling national pride.
The period immediately prior to, during the 2011 revolution and up until President al-Sisi’s inauguration (2009-2014) was significant as a time when neoliberalism in Egypt was challenged but eventually restored in a way that relies increasingly on authoritarianism. This paper is the introduction to a project that asks how struggles around urban tourism during the 2011 Egyptian revolution not only failed to disrupt neoliberal inequalities/exclusions but played a pivotal role in shaping the current authoritarian neoliberal regime and its top-down violences. This project breaks with existing approaches to studying 1) the Egyptian revolution and authoritarian neoliberalism and 2) tourism and the urban, which have been crucial to neoliberal regulation/accumulation. It analyses them together through an approach that ‘thinks through struggle’, which centres the experiences/practices of those trying to change the world (Coleman 2021). To do so, I draw on ethnographic research on neoliberal tourism that I carried out in four critical sites of contestation in revolutionary Cairo – the Pyramids of Giza, Khan-al-Khalili Market, Garbage City and Tahrir Square – between 2009-2014. I focus on how key aspects of neoliberal tourism were contested, negotiated and reshaped through on-the-ground struggles at these four tourism sites. This study examines what alternatives to neoliberal tourism were revealed through contestations in these tourism sites, and how the Egyptian state and tourism industry responded to them in a way that shaped the authoritarian neoliberal regime that followed. At a time when authoritarian neoliberalism in the Global South is on the rise, this project contributes to understanding how struggles surrounding urban tourism play a significant role in shaping this iteration of neoliberalism, a process that entrenches coloniality through practices of racialised dispossession and cultural extraction (Tansel 2016; Axster et al. 2021).