TOURISM AND HUMAN RIGHTS Is there a link?
Posted on 09/25/2015
Could the travel industry be a voice for human rights and press freedom? Would its major players use their influence to tell countries that they are concerned not only with the safety of their clients but with basic freedom of expression? The example of Egypt, and the imprisonment of Canadian passport holder and journalist, Mohamed Fahmy highlights this question.
On September 23, Canadians awoke to the news that Fahmy had been pardoned.
A producer of the Al-Jazeera English channel, who has reported for the New York Times and CNN, Fahmy spent over a year in prison for "spreading false news", specifically supporting the Muslim Brotherhood, and operating without accreditation.
He was freed in a mass pardon of 100 journalists, activists and people who just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.
There was a strong consensus that the trial was a joke and the accused innocent. Still, Fahmy's appeal this last August was not successful - it only lessened the sentence to three years. But by that time, his international lawyer was Amal Clooney and the pressure - from heads of state, the media and human rights organizations was not letting up.
It was that pressure - and the fact that President Abdel-Fattah al-Sissi was about to go to New York to attend the annual United Nations international summit of world leaders that persuaded him to want, as the Toronto Star noted, to "change the channel".
Joining the chorus of voices calling for the journalists release was the open letter signed in early September by 300 notable Canadians asking Prime Minister Harper to extract Fahmy from his Egyptian jail and let him come to Canada.
The letter made me wonder: what if major players in the travel industry came up with their own statement linking press freedom with tourism?
After all, Egypt desperately needs tourism. The drop was huge during the Arab Spring. In the past two years, official statistics from the Egyptian tourist authority in New York show that the number of North American visitors was only 204,099 in July 2013 and 214,477, in 2014. As of July, 2115, the number of arrivals was 152,340.
The recent Egyptian security forces firing on tourists in the Western Desert, killing 12, will no doubt have a chilling effect for the near future. Sure, the attack wasn't intentional. But the shocking lack of caution, especially where groups of tourists are concerned, shows a ham-fisted, unthinking use of force. The same desperate excess that led the helicopter gunship forces to fire on a group of people before verifying who they were, also bans demonstrations and locks up people who disagree publicly with the government.
Tourism is the very life blood of the Egyptian economy. Would the Canadian travel industry, in the name of attracting tourists and ensuring their safety, consider asking the Egyptian Ministry of Tourism to exert pressure on President Abdel Fattah al-Sissi to loosen up some of the draconian laws that resulted in the jailing of the Al-Jazeera 3 as they were being called?
Not long before the pardon came down, I asked a handful of people, heads of large touring companies with many tours to Egypt, what they thought about my question.
Their answers, so similar that there is no point in quoting individuals, can be summed by the following: "We are not involved in politics, we don't mess with human rights. We are concerned with safety."
One person said that Steven Harper should do more to get Fahmy out of jail; another said that the more people visit Egypt the more it will be open to free speech.
Only one person, who did not wish to be quoted, said my question was something to think about. He was the most knowledgeable about the case, and agreed that the two remaining journalists in jail should be freed immediately.
And what about my group, travel writers? We are not political reporters, to be sure. Yet we ought to know what is going on in the countries we visit and to which we send people. And we can make it clear to the people we meet that punishing journalists will not encourage tourism.
When I was in Egypt last year, I found it to be a country of marvels. I can't imagine any visitor being disappointed in its historical sites - the Valley of the Kings, the Sphinx, the dreamy voyage along the Nile. The cuisine is luscious and healthy and the people a delight.
Yet for days before my trip, I heard and read that Mohamed Fahmy, Baher Mohamed and Peter Grest, later deported to Australia, were in jail on trumped up charges. I felt I had to do something. In my article, which was about the marvels of Egypt, and even about how safe it seemed, I included encounters with young people who said things like "We have ousted one dictator we can oust another.” (No names mentioned, of course).
What I didn't put in my story was a conversation over dinner at a swank hotel with a major player in Egyptian tourism. I took him aside and said that Canadians are hearing about the jailing of the Al Jazeera three and that this is bad for business.
"But journalists are saying bad things about our country", he said. He meant Cairo and Arabic Al Jazeera, which was tilting towards the Muslim Brotherhood; Al Jazeera English has a reputation for being fair-minded, and has won awards for its high quality journalism.
"If you don't like these journalists, kick them out; don't jail them;" I said.
He thought for a minute. "Good idea", he replied. He said he knew the Minister of Culture (no longer in office) and would speak to him. Nothing happened. Now it has, thanks to relentless pressure.
But my question remains: where was the travel industry?