Tourism is the enemy of archaeology. Therefore, we need to accommodate the need for tourism to support the economy of the country and also the need to preserve and conserve archaeological sites.
I believe that one of my roles as an ambassador for the World Tourism Organisation is to encourage the antiquities agencies of countries with major cultural heritage, as well as the tourism authorities, to be more aware of this subject and of the important question of how to accommodate both the need for tourism and the preservation of antiquities.
Many conferences on this subject have been organised by the UN cultural agency UNESCO, including in 1996 in cooperation with the European Union and the World Tourism Organisation to discuss culture, tourism, and development in the 21st century. Other conferences have taken place in Milan and Paris and in countries such as Indonesia and Australia.
A roundtable discussion in Paris left me convinced that archaeological sites should be protected not only from tourism, but also from other threats facing us in the modern age.
The travel and tourism industry in Egypt is one of the country’s leading economic sectors, generating about LE389 billion in 2018. Tourist arrivals reached a peak in 2010 with 14.7 million visitors, and in 2019, albeit with several limitations on travel, they reached 13.026 million. About 88 per cent of the direct travel and tourism contribution to Egypt derives from leisure spending, compared to 12 per cent for business spending. At least two thirds of this percentage is linked to the visitation of heritage sites.
Mass international tourism, especially in Egypt, has been welcomed as a major contributor to economic prosperity and as a main employer without much regard for its adverse effects, however. For instance, every year new hotels, restaurants, and other tourist facilities have been built, nowhere more so than in Luxor, with larger and better roads carrying busloads of people traveling to reach the sites. Moreover, the numbers of national and local visitors are increasing very rapidly, including mass school visits and holiday visitors and nowhere more so than at the Pyramids of Giza.
The government is marketing historic cultural tourism internationally and is aiming to at least double the current numbers of visitors. Projections also show galloping interest and an increase in the numbers of Egyptian visitors. This entails opening dozens of new sites and preparing them for visits. Moreover, an increase is expected in plans to list more sites from the 143 now included on UNESCO’s Tentative List of World Heritage Sites in Egypt.
All this will put strain on the sites, as once a site is inscribed on the World Heritage List and gains worldwide recognition, there is a substantial difference in visitor numbers when compared to the situation before its nomination.
But in many countries, including Egypt, where tourism is one of the major current and future contributors to the economy, there are no plans on how to facilitate a larger number of visitors and how to ensure the protection of sites and their surroundings, including the local community, before a nomination to the UNESCO List. Consequently, many World Heritage Sites could suffer from the negative impacts of an unsustainable number of visitors.
This can be seen in Egypt, where mass tourism can threaten some World Heritage Sites, such as the Pyramids at Giza and Saqqara and Abu Simbel in Upper Egypt.
From here comes the importance of establishing site-visitation plans with proper itineraries. It is hugely important to enhance the sites and their attractiveness, while managing any related risks. However, to date, there is no system in place to integrate the income generated by tourism with the protection and preservation of the monuments.
It is a fact that each tourist who enters a tomb or a pyramid brings about 20 g of water through breath into the monument with him. The Pramid of Khufu at Giza is a good example. Humidity has risen to 85 per cent inside the Pyramid, and salt deposits up to one cm thick have accumulated over the surface of the so-called Queen’s Chamber and in the Grand Gallery of the Pyramid. Stones have become weak and detached.
We have removed black spots of soot from the ascending passage that leads to the second chamber of the Pyramid with a solution composed of alcohol and water. We have also removed accumulations of salt and installed ventilation, which have reduced the humidity.
Over 3,000 tourists visit the tomb of Tutankhamen from the 18th Dynasty in the Valley of the Kings at Luxor, and, before we closed it, the 19th-Dynasty tomb of Seti I. This number increases during the peak tourism season to 5,000 a day and could lead to the complete decay of the tombs. The problem in the Valley of the Kings is made more acute by the fact that tourists visit the same sites that they have been visiting for the past 90 years. We must keep in mind that the tombs in the Valley of the Kings number 62, but, as I said, tourists concentrate only on visiting a few of them which are the most famous.
There has been deterioration in the tomb of Seti I. Cracks have formed in the tomb’s interior, and the inscription in the second part of the tomb of Ramses III is also now gone. The sound and light shows at the Temples of Karnak and Philae are not properly designed for their safety, though they are being improved with new technology.
Mechanical shocks from tourist buses and cars are also dangerous, generating excessive vibration and air pollution. Tourists with their guides enter the tombs, where they may even touch the paintings, and guides often use inappropriate lighting.
The damage caused by mass tourism to man-made and natural sites is now well documented worldwide. In Egypt, where tourist-management is in its infancy, the problems created by large tourist groups are quite apparent. For example, at the great Temple of Abu Simbel, an average of 3,000 tourists arrive daily.
It is impossible to control such numbers. Some tourists touch or knock against the walls; others take flash photographs; and all of them breathe humidity and carbon dioxide. It is thus small wonder that a piece of stone recently fell from the Temple ceiling. From the tourists’ point of view, such a crowded visit is also disappointing as they are obliged to wait for their turn to visit, whereupon they are crowded into small, oxygen-starved chambers, unable to see the wonderful reliefs and paintings or appreciate the haunting ambience.
The only solution to accommodate the needs of both tourism and archaeology is the proper management of sites. It is commonly recognised among archaeologists, conservators, site inspectors, and others in the field that the country’s cultural heritage is under increasing threat from the growth in the number of tourists, rising subsoil water tables, rapid urban development, and agricultural and building expansion.
Other threats to the sites include poor restoration, flash floods, rainfall, and vegetation.
SITE MANAGEMENT: Proper site management is neither a recipe nor a science. It is a number of combined practices oriented by a clear strategy aimed at protecting and sustaining historical sites so that they can be transmitted to future generations.
These practices are complementary and constitute a site-management system. There is no single reference that provides comprehensive directives on strategies and practices. However, successful site management is based on three main preconditions: well-developed strategic tools including cultural protection policies; properly enforced conservation laws; and active institutional national and international collaboration, a well-organised training and research support system, and the availability of resources.
Site management plans (SMPs) are work plans that describe steps to conduct well-defined actions to protect archaeological sites. Efficient implementation of SMPs aims to ensure sustainable site protection, conservation, presentation, investigation, visitation, and value enhancement in a way that assures the preservation of the site for the future.
At the Giza Plateau, we did the following, for example. An architect converted the master plan into an active project. A wall was built to limit access for visitors and others. A new entrance was opened to lead visitors to the desert south of the Pyramids. A parking area was created. A visitor centre was built. Electric cars are now used to stop traffic within the site. Camels and horses are limited to a zone outside the site. There is a souvenir sellers’ zone near the parking area. And panoramic views are identified at the site for visitors.
I really believe that mass tourism can destroy heritage sites. The only way to save our heritage is proper site management as a response to growing tourism. If we do not do this, most of the remains of the great Ancient Egyptian civilisation will vanish in less than 100 years.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 16 September, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly