In a small village at the foot of the Giza Plateau lives Zaki, 42, the owner and manager of a horse riding business that offers tours of the area’s world-famous archaeological sites to visitors.
But the past few years brought with them many changes to the Giza Plateau, particularly as Egypt’s tourism ministry has intensified its efforts to develop the area ahead of the inauguration of the nearby Grand Egyptian Museum, one of Egypt’s most-talked-about national projects.
With the opening of a new high-end restaurant overlooking Egypt’s ubiquitous national symbol, the Pyramids, the introduction of new electric buses and a more efficient recycling mechanism, the district of Al Haram in Giza is witnessing an overhaul that the El Sisi government is proud of.
Zaki's horse riding and tours business was started by his father decades ago and he had been a part of it since his early teens when he dropped out of school to join the family business.
“Tourism is our bread and butter down here, it’s difficult for it not to be so central when the Pyramids are literally on my doorstep,” Zaki tells The National.
When his father died in 2012, he took over the family business, but after the events of the Arab uprisings, business was not good. In addition to dealing with the crushing loss of his father, he was also faced with some of the toughest financial problems of his life.
“We personally own a lot of horses that tourists ride around the Pyramids,” explains Zaki. “Feeding and caring for the horses is very expensive and time-consuming, and when tourism is down as it always inevitably is, we struggle to find the funds to take care of them.”
A 2019 campaign launched by People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (Peta) denounced the mistreatment of the animals involved in the Egyptian tourism sector.
A video produced by the group revealed “horrific animal abuse” at some of Egypt’s most prominent tourist sites, including the Giza Plateau and Luxor. The footage showed camels and horses being beaten with sticks as they struggled to pull tourist-laden carriages to and from the Pyramids.
Ashraf Mohy El Din, general director of the Giza archaeological complex, said that Peta’s campaign is certainly not the reason the area is undergoing such a comprehensive overhaul, since the development plan had been around since the early 2000s.
"The campaign was informative as to some of the things that tourists don’t like about visiting the Plateau," he tells The National
In 2020, the Ministry of Antiquities and Tourism announced that it would be implementing a set of new regulations on all tourism workers who enter the Giza Plateau, whether they are there to operate animal rides or sell souvenirs.
The new regulations dictate that all animals are kept in good health so they are presentable to holidaymakers and that they are treated humanely, says Mr Mohy El Din.
“We are also opening a veterinary centre inside the Giza complex, which will ensure the animals being used for rides are taken care of. They will be checked every day. Their owners will also be given sensitivity training so they don't beat or mistreat their horses, which disturbs tourists.”
While the new regulations have been lauded by many as a move in the right direction for animal rights in Egypt, they have made workers such as Zaki, who depend on operating these rides to make ends meet, more than a little apprehensive.
“When we first heard that rides might be more regulated at the Pyramids, we didn’t think it would happen. The government has announced plans to change the area periodically over the past 20 years, but there are always delays and political hurdles that impede those plans,” Zaki says.
However, he has a feeling that this time, the new system will see the light of day, on account of the profound changes that have already taken place at the archaeological site over the course of the past five years.
For its part, the tourism ministry is admittedly more focused on the tourist's experience in Egypt, according to Mohy El Din who revealed that a round of training sessions was set to kick off on September 15 to coach all vendors and ride operators working at the pyramids on how they must conduct themselves with visitors.
"If any of the vendors or tour operators break the new rules, they will simply not be allowed to enter the Giza plateau to conduct their business, whatever that is," said Mr Mohy El Din.
In addition to a new uniform which they will be required to wear while on duty, tourism workers at the plateau will also be given crash courses in archaeology and ancient Egyptian history so that they can give tourists accurate information about the various relics at the plateau.
“Our top priority right now is the tourist's experience. We already know we have the archaeological sites that everyone wants to see, the next step is ensuring visitors have a good time while they're here. Only then will they come back,” Mr Mohy El Din said.
While Zaki is apprehensive about his ability to make money under the new system, he is happy to see more tourists visiting the area after the Covid-19 lockdown in 2020 that brought tourism to a grinding halt.
He hoped that his potential financial losses under the new system will be offset by a larger influx of tourists to the Giza complex, enticed by the newly revamped services.
“Even if we have to charge less for rides, if there are more tourists visiting every day, this gives us a chance to come up with new ways to make money under the new rules,” he said.
What worries Zaki more, however, is a new price-fixing scheme which the government intends to implement to ensure tourists aren’t being swindled by workers in the area.
Prices for souvenirs and tourist activities have long been a point of contention among visitors who often have to haggle with vendors and ride operators at the archaeological sites to reach a reasonable price.
Zaki, however, does not think that the current unregulated pricing system is flawed in any way, pointing out that the government charges foreign tourists more for tickets than they do Egyptians, which is also how he prices his rides.
“If you go to any of the country’s museums or important archaeological sites, foreigners are charged more for tickets than Egyptians, which is what we try to do here. But of course there are swindlers who ask for more money than they deserve, but I generally try to be fair,” he said.
Zaki remained optimistic that he and other tourism workers will be able to adapt to the new system and even innovate new ways to make money under it.
“Tourism workers are resilient, we have to be. It’s such a volatile sector, one day it’s up and the next it’s down. But as long as there are tourists coming in, we can adapt to the changing times like our fathers did before us.”