Rethinking e-tourism in the Arab world reveals cultural divide


It was strangely ironic when late last year a major disruption of Internet services in the Middle East – effecting 80 percent of the Egypt’s network alone – took place on the heels of a significant pan-Arab regional e-tourism conference. It may have been a subliminal wake-up call that in these troubled economic times that the Middle-East should boost its online infrastructure if it wants to stay competitive.

But applying international e-tourism models to diverse regions is fraught with roadblocks. After all this is a culture that favors haggling over straightforward pricing: and the question begs about whether the local service providers here will ever apply the same model as has been done in other regions?

At stake is the Middle East and its second fastest growing tourism market which represents 33.4 million visitors; and tourism receipts of 24.7 billion dollars between 2001 and 2006 alone.

But local factors have resulted in the stunted growth of e-tourism. Taking place in the Egyptian resort city of Sharm el Sheikh, the International Arab Conference for e-Tourism and e-Marketing brought to light the challenges, and even some practical solutions towards generating online tourism in a region that can be culturally adverse to non-negotiated transactions; whose laws and regulatory framework are said to be woefully inadequate; and whose banking system charges can make simple transactions out of reach for both the client and service provider.

These factors in effect stop e-tourism in its very tracks.

“With the complicated procedures in place developers run away from e-commerce and just don’t do it here,” says attendee Mikhail Malak, a freelance web-designer at who works primarily for the Egyptian travel and tourism industry.

“The setup fees in Egypt are expensive, and while in other countries they have free services to build e-commerce or use third party companies like Paypal, we don’t have these types of technologies.”

As a result, for the moment Malak simply foregoes the whole process and instead provides design and creative services. He is waiting for the day that the infrastructure and mindset of bank managers allows for a more accessible backbone for electronic transactions.

If there is any reason why Egypt has been able to afford remaining a decade or so behind in the e-commerce game, it is the unique resources. The country’s archaeological sites are unparalleled, including the famed Pyramids, the Valley of the Kings, Karnak or Abu Simbel to name just the better known attractions.

As a result of the obvious interest here, anomalies within the tourism industry including like pricing by nationality, outdated market practices and lax service standards are sometimes overlooked.

In Egypt, developers like Malak simply continue to wait for banks to simplify procedures and the much awaited slash in transaction fees that can reach higher than four percent; almost quadruple those seen in economies where electronic transactions are a given.

“They put a lot of obstacles,” says Malak, “I think that it is the time for the banks to open their box, give us solutions and easier procedures.”

These are just some of the issues that were at the forefront at the Sharm el Sheikh conference which took place on December 15-19. The event was put together by the The Electronic Union of Travel Industry (EUOTI), in association with the Arab Tourism Organization (ATO), the International Federation of Information Technology and Travel and Tourism (IFITT) under the supervision of the Arab League and the Egyptian Ministry of Tourism.

Represented were a wide range of groups including experts in the fields of law, technology, marketing, and economy from various Arab and European countries. Fifteen international experts were invited including academics, e-marketing specialists in the fields of travel, media, communications, economy, banking, IT, managerial development, and law.

For some international experts looking in the chief impediment in the development of e-tourism in Egypt is cultural differences in how business is done here. After all this is a country known for its preference for face-to-face haggling or deal-making. The real value and price expectation for a basic good in any Egyptian market is merely a fraction of the asking retail amount.

“I think that it is a cultural issue primarily more than an educational or even a technological issue,” says UK-based Bournemouth University professor Dimitrios Buhalis, who has advised the Egyptian Tourism Ministry on its e-tourism and marketing strategy, “The market operates in very dynamic terms and there are no written rules or procedures.”

“Here classical trade is back to basics in the old sense. Everything is negotiable here. At the same time most e-commerce activity is based on procedures and processes in a world of fixed costs and principals that do not necessarily apply here.”

The expectation here is that deals are made through negotiation, sometimes even down to the price of a hotel room. The local cultural context dictates that obtaining a basic quote on a hotel room can be met with evasiveness, and the product itself remains a flexible element of the tourism offer.

“Everything here is adaptable,” says Buhalis, “You ask if you can do a dinner with the Bedouins tonight, they will say we cannot do tonight, but we can do something else and in this way the product is actually very flexible.”

“Technology can actually help this but it would need different modelling and adaptability that is much faster, reflecting the way that people operate.”

Buhalis says that there are variants within Arab states, some of which are far more technologically advanced than Egypt. The solution, he says, is a mix of technology adapting to the specific cultural context and the local context adapting to outside e-commerce models and international expectations.

Wissam Badine, and Account Manager at Eastline Marketing, came to the Middle-East from Canada – where he and some friends had settled – precisely in order to seize the opportunity of a growing market in the e-tourism sector and adapt what he had learned to the Arab audiences.

Many of his clients are in the new ultra-modern cyber-cities of the Middle-East in Dubai, Kuwait, Qatar, Bahrain or Saudi Arabia. Many cities here, he says, were built from scratch and have modern infrastructure and the most up-to-date technology. But a lot of their work is also creatively adapting the technology to the local realities.

“It is a cultural thing because Arabs in general like to negotiate deals in person and to get the best price before buying a certain commodity,” Badine says, “It is a challenge, and we have to find attractive and creative ways in order to simulate this sort of trade online. It is something between the user experience and a store, you almost have to introduce negotiation.”