Shirking the usual New Year's destinations and fancy parties, 30-year-old Taimour Othman, creative leader at The Brand Bees, decided to start a journey off the beaten path, opening the new year in the Siwa oasis in western Egypt, away from the bustle of city life, with big plans on what he believed could be a small milestone to help an ailing country.
It was there Othman came up with the idea of travelling the country to capture its beauty, hoping to show the world something worth seeing and prove to locals, who believe there is not much to do in Egypt, that there's a lot to see if only you dig below the surface.
Moving from the mountains of Saint Catherine in Sinai to camping under the stars in Marsa Alam on the Red Sea, to the mosques of Cairo and his famous tea photos, Othman's "Roam Egypt" campaign was ready in full force in June 2015.
He called on people to snap photos from all around the country and show the world a firsthand account of the real Egypt. Today, #RoamEgypt carries almost 8,500 images, while this month, his other hashtag, #ThisIsEgypt, was adopted by Egypt's Ministry of Tourism to become the country's official tourism campaign.
View of Blue Lagoon in Abu Galloum, Sinai, Egypt (Photo courtesy of Taimour Othman)
But Othman's idea came long before that launch. It is the story of a man Othman met in the White Desert in October 2014, who lost his private safari business following a drop in tourism after the 2011 revolution and now works for another company to be able to make a living. This triggered Othman to start his campaign.
“For me, this was heartbreaking and I wanted to do this for people like him, who were affected the most by the situation in Egypt, especially those in areas not so popular for domestic travel,” says Othman.
It took Othman months of thinking and planning, until he came up with the name "Roam Egypt" while he was in Siwa with the co-founders of his campaign, Omar Abouzeid and Ahmed Fakhry.
For Othman, one of the main problems which affects Egypt tourism is that it lacks marketing. Often criticised for posting photos that show only the good side of Egypt, leaving out photos of trash and negative things, Othman says it's a matter of choice.
“Photos of garbage and poverty are in every country, but part of knowing how to market the country well is choosing what to post, and I choose what I post,” says Othman. “I believe that seeing is believing, and if we only post photos of bombs, violence, garbage, and poverty, this would not make anyone want to come and see Egypt.”
While the #RoamEgypt and #ThisIsEgypt hashtags have now made a buzz, it was not Othman's first attempt to launch a positive PR campaign for Egypt. In 2012, he first launched the "This Is Egypt" campaign as an invitation to do something positive for the country. But with no experience in social media, or followers, Othman said the first attempt was a near failure.
“When I launched 'Roam Egypt' this year, I dreamt to make it the official hashtag of Egypt,” says Othman. “It's funny that after all these years it is 'This Is Egypt' that became the official hashtag."
“I want it to stand on its own away from any political or religious beliefs, away from any person or any entity,” says Othman.
With a full-time job and only weekends to roam, it's hard to get everything out there. But Othman is continuing to develop his campaign, to expand it to be able to reach more mediums and encourage more people to tag along in the journey of roaming the country.
“I want the campaign to be a window through which people see what they want,” says Othman.
But Othman's initiative is not the only one of its like. Over the past two years, successful independent initiatives and campaigns by Egypt's youth were launched in the hope of showing a different side of Egypt, and encourage both Egyptians and foreigners to explore it. For a country with a troubled tourism industry struggling to recover, initiatives by the youth could be the answer to help Egypt rebound.
From travelling, to touristic city walks, to portraying city life and exploring architectural gems, Ahram Online talked to the founders behind some of the successful initiatives that took a leap of faith in what they believed in, and that could be a small step in doing something positive for Egypt.
While on Skype with friends living abroad discussing Egypt and plans for the holidays, 19-year-old Seif Tamer, a medical student currently studying in Prague, was always getting the same complaint: “There's nothing to do here.” Tired of his friends' misconceptions, in August 2014 Tamer decided to start a positive campaign to show the beauty of Egypt and prove his friends wrong.
Today, Tamer's "My Egypt" account has received 66,000 photos and 53,000 followers on Instagram.
“I started to search for Instagram and Facebook pages that showed the real beauty of Egypt, and surprisingly not a single one did,” explains Tamer, “Being the avid traveller I was, I wondered, if the locals think there is nothing to do, then how should foreigners think any different?”
Tamer's account depends primarily on reposting quality photos that capture the beauty of Egypt.
Starting off individually, it was hard for Tamer to manage everything on his own, but starting from last month, Tamer's team grew larger, allowing him to expand.
A handout photo of My Egypt's Seif Tamer posing with the Egyptian flag (Photo: Seif Tamer)
While Tamer's target audience is more the international community, he says that one must start with locals first before reaching out to foreigners.
“According to statistics, exactly 50 percent of our followers are outside of Egypt, with the US, UK, Saudi Arabia and Canada topping the list respectively,” says Tamer.
With an ailing tourism sector, Tamer says the most essential and first step to take an action is spreading awareness.
“By making people know the secrets behind certain places and sights, a sense of appreciation for the history becomes the single most sustainable motivator for both locals and foreigners to explore more,” explains Tamer.
While Tamer's campaign achieved its purpose, he says he doesn't consider himself to have started yet.
“#MyEgypt in my opinion is a startup that is still in its development phase, and will very soon expand and have the impact intended,” says Tamer.
The Saturday Walkers
Venturing into the nooks and alleys of Cairo, capturing street scenes and people in doors and buildings, there is no better way to experience the everyday life of the city than through Karim El-Hayawan's "Cairo Saturday Walks." It takes one hashtag and one walk to capture a glimpse of what a hidden Cairo has to offer, as seen through the lens of the Cairo Saturday Walkers.
It all started when architect, interior designer and photographer Karim El-Hayawan decided to take his photography hobby to the next level, giving a chance for Cairo's famous photography walk to be born. The beginning was a street photography workshop with the photographer Alaa Abdel Nabi.
“During the workshop, we were given assignments and the only time I had to do these assignments was Saturday,” says El-Hayawan. “As the workshop ended, Alaa Abdel Nabi advised us to keep this habit going to be able to continue with our photography.”
Popular drinks at a coffee shop in Cairo (Photo courtesy of Cairo Saturday walks - Karim El-Hayawan)
Being a man of habits and routines, for two years straight now, El-Hayawan has not missed a single Saturday without going on a new photography walk.
“But, in order for us to continue with the same quality of the group, we had to set rules,” says El-Hayawan. “The first Saturday of every month is open to the public, then the second Saturday is for eight people only, and then 14 and the last Saturday is back to the eight again.”
Bringing on board a very diverse team, El-Hayawan says one of the things that make his walkers unique is that the group is not consistent: young and old, professional cameras and mobile phones; the group has seen everything.
“What I see in the Cairo Saturday Walks is that you mingle with people and communities and it's not just the photos, it's documentation, networking, giving back to the community and growing my international network,” says El-Hayawan. “Since I started, I started getting calls from internationally acknowledged photographers who are stopping by Cairo for two nights, asking me to show them around, and I definitely take them.”
According to El-Hayawan, one of the problems facing Egypt tourism is that an aspect of urban appeal and city walks is absent, and even tourism programmes limit Cairo trips to one or two nights maximum.
“People want to see the lifestyle and the city and how people live, because to them it's mystical and mysterious: it's something they can't predict and this is what they want to see,” he says. “You don't portray the lifestyle of the city by shooting the Pyramids or the Cairo Tower.”
While El-Hayawan is happy with the outcome of the Cairo Saturday Walks, he's not planning to stop there. He will be curating an exhibition of the walks as a homage to the walkers, and also for people who are not following the walks to come and see the work of the photographers.
“One of the perks of living in Cairo is that you have a full menu all the time; you have a lot going on,” says El-Hayawan. “I have been doing this for two years now and Cairo never ends.”
52 Weeks Around Egypt
On a regular Friday morning last year, Karim Morcos and his friend were bored of the usual outings and places they would visit. The idea of making a visit to the Citadel popped up. Enjoying the trip, it was then that Morcos decided to make the 52 weeks of the year open for exploring, instead of being a one time thing.
Today, Morcos is almost seven weeks away from finishing his first 52 weeks.
Morcos says he wanted to pick a name that give a sense of exploring the country 24/7, and from here came "Egypt 52." “I wanted it to be that we will explore through the 52 weeks of the year,” he says.
Morcos says his campaign soon picked up and he started receiving many requests from people to join him in exploring the country. Not only that, but Morcos says the campaign attracted both local and foreign press and television coverage, which helped him get his message out easily.
Among the most famous destinations Morcos covered in his first season were Nuweiba, Siwa, Marsa Matrouh, Saint Catherine's and Nubia.
kitesurfing in a beach in the Sinai town of Ras Sedr, Egypt (Photo: Courtesy of Egypt 52 - Karim Morcos)
With the first 52 weeks coming to an end, Morcos says this is just the beginning.
“For us, it is just the first season or first wave ending,” says Morcos. “I will continue to explore and show the people that there is a lot of beauty that is not yet explored.”
On Foot Encounters
With random walks here and there around the city, Sara Zaki had already embarked on a journey of her own, venturing into places she had never been to in Cairo. From there, she decided to turn her hobby into something bigger and start more organized walks, and this is how she founded "Cairo On Foot."
This month, Cairo On Foot celebrates its one year anniversary.
“When we travel to anywhere in the world, we visit markets, museums and many places that we don't bother to go to here in Cairo, so I wanted to change that,” says Zaki.
From Samaan's Cave Church in Mokattam to the Citadel to Prince Mohamed Ali's Palace and picnics in parks, Cairo On Foot tries to cover as many activities and places in the city as possible.
Cairo On Foot's trip to Andalus park (Photo: Sara Zaki)
While long terms plans are still not very clear to Zaki, she says in the short term she's planning to do more special edition trips outside the city, as they did with "Aswan On Foot" this year.
Starting a new year, Zaki says they still have a lot on their plate. “We still have a lot more places to explore, and when we cover everything, we will start repeating the places,” says Zaki.
“People don't know what's out there, so when they see photos they change their minds and start joining.”
Touring the Heart of Cairo
Standing at the heart of Talaat Harb Square on a Friday morning, the tour makes a stop to observe the beautiful vintage art-deco and mosaics on the facade of the iconic Cafe Groppi, with the name of the former Italian owner, J Groppi still shining on the entrance.
From Groppi to Antonio Lasciac's neo-baroque Said Halim Pasha Palace, Cozzika's domes, Al-Aswani's famous Yacoubian Building, the arts and cultural hubs, the Stock Exchange Building, the Shaar Hashamayim Synagogue and the glorious Radio Theatre and Cinema, Ahmed Al-Bindari leads his group on a comprehensive walking tour around Downtown Cairo, exploring landmarks, nooks, corners, and the tiniest details of the area as part of the weekly "D-Tour."
Launched last month, D-Tour is a free weekly three hour tour of the Ismaelia area of the Downtown Cairo offered by Al-Ismaelia Real Estate and Investment Company, in an attempt to restore the Downtown experience.
“One of the important things we are trying to do as part of restoring the Downtown experience is attracting positive traffic to the Downtown area, and from here came the idea of the D-Tour,” says Moushira Adel, corporate marketing manager at Al-Ismaelia Real Estate and Investment Company. “Downtown Cairo was the hub for business, tourism and culture, and over the past 30 years it was completely neglected.”
Not only do walkers get to enjoy a detailed tour of the area, they are also invited to share their best snaps during the tour at the hashtag #MeetMeDowntown for a chance to win two tickets to the famous Abla Fahita show at the Radio Theatre.
Founded in 2008, Al-Ismaelia so far has managed to acquire 23 signature properties and landmarks in Downtown Cairo.
With plans for retail hubs, cultural and arts venues, department stores, boutique hotels, residential buildings, office spaces and entertainment centres, Al-Ismaelia has a full menu of plans in its pipeline in order to restore the Downtown experience.
“We offer an opportunity to see the experience of Downtown Cairo in a different way, and we are targeting the youth and new generation who don't know much about Downtown, as well as promoting domestic and international tourism,” says Adel.