The world is full of people that derive pleasure from following A-List celebrities and living vicariously through their social media accounts. Recognising the borderless influential power these celebrities have, ministries across the Middle East have begun tapping into this trend as a means to boost tourism. Supporting this belief is the fact that Egypt's highest recorded level of tourists arriving took place in 2010 after scores of celebrities ranging from Angelina Jolie to Beyonce paid Oum El Donia a visit. Trying to reach these numbers again, Egypt's tourism ministry announced that they are in negotiations with Hollywood celebrities to come visit Egypt. Although this initiative should generate a wave of new tourists interested in visiting, there are several obstacles involving the process of selecting celebrities, proposed regulations on social media, lapses in security, and the jackassery of Zahi Hawass that all need to be addressed if Egypt is to stop wasting the positive impact celebrity visits may have on tourism.

In March, legendary Hollywood actor Will Smith visited Cairo with his family, resulting in a media blitz to catch the Fresh Prince of Bel-Air in Oum el Donia. Upon his arrival, the Ministry of Antiquities posted on their page that the visit was part of a promotional strategy to use celebrities to showcase Egypt's iconic landmarks as a means to promote tourism. Following this successful visit, local media sites, like Youm7, began reporting that Egypt's ministry is negotiating deals that will hopefully see Sylvester Stallone and Salma Hayak pay a visit

النجم والممثل العالمي ويل سميث بالاهرامات ____________ دعما لحركة السياحة الوافدة الي مصر والترويج للمناطق الأثرية بها ...

Posted by ‎Ministry of Antiquities وزارة الآثار‎ on Sunday, March 5, 2017

It's heartbreaking to think that the nation needs to negotiate deals with celebrities to visit the land of the Pyramids. I don't remember the government needing to negotiate visits with Louis Armstrong, Muhammed Ali, Agatha Christie, Marlon Brando, Sophia Loren, or Elizabeth Taylor.
Almost the entire planet, including celebrities, have a fascination with Egypt's mysterious past, often stemming from childhood and the myriad of cartoon episodes to countless Hollywood movies inspired by its glorious past. However, two uprisings, two plane disasters, and multiple bombings have created desperate times, requiring desperate measures. Bringing celebrities to Egypt and having them share their experience on social media can definitely boost tourism, but these efforts are wasted if we don't address the violent extremist elephant in the room – security lapses.

Tourism to Egypt will improve when the nation can get through the year without a bombing making global headlines. Some will argue it shouldn't matter, as popular tourist destinations like France have repeatedly been attacked without the flight warnings or bans being placed by other governments. It's not fair, and it's safe to assume that the constant media coverage of terrorism emanating from the region stokes the fears of potential tourists that the nation is made up of terrorists despite the fact that it is simply not true. Egypt is a nation of over 90 million, there's no telling how many violent extremists exist, but a gambling man would say the safe bet is in the hundreds, possibly thousands, but definitely not in the millions. No matter what the true number is, the state is being dealt subsequent blows exposing fatal lapses in security. These lapses subsequently diminish any good publicity that could be amassed from celebrity visits.A recent example is when Manchester United legend Ryan Giggs came with the UEFA Champions League trophy as part of the #ChampionTheTrophy campaign. When Giggs arrived, I was assigned to be his social media shadow, posting live throughout his visit. He seemed generally happy with his experience in Egypt and I was given an exclusive interview with him. “There are moments in your life that you always remember and that was certainly one moment – you're having dinner on a balcony, on a terrace, looking at the Pyramids. You see things on TV and you wonder what it's going to be like in real life, but until you are actually there you can never sort of have that feeling. That's my highlight,” he fondly says.Giggs with the Champions League Trophy at the Great Pyramids of Giza was a golden international PR moment for Egypt. Sadly, any benefits this visits would have brought are now overshadowed by the horrific twin Palm Sunday Church bombings. This isn't the first tragedy strangely coinciding with a celebrity visit. The day after Yanni came to perform at the Pyramids, the Russian Plane bombing happened. When Pele visited in 2014, the day after he landed, the Taba bus bombing happened. Perhaps that is why Egypt's Hepatitis C initiative Tour n' Cure, which hosted Football icon Lionel Messi, failed to convince the Barcelona forward to stay past dinner. It's only a matter of time now before conspiracy theorist Mortada Mansour starts claiming he has the ridiculous evidence to prove that the West is using NGOs to pay celebrities to visit Egypt and supply terrorists with explosives. Each lapse is a dagger in the heart of Egypt's security apparatus, and every time the terrorists succeed the whole Egyptian population is asked to give up more rights and freedoms in the name of security. After the recent church bombings, the government approved a state of emergency, without explaining how doing so will prevent further attacks. Sinai has been in a state of emergency for years, and yet attacks on security checkpoints keep happening. Even more alarming is the fact that instead of accepting any responsibility for such failures, the state chooses to blame the media, believing that a National Press Council needs to be created to monitor and regulate the information being presented to the public. Within 10 days of said council's creation, Al Ahram Newspaper Chairman resigned claiming state interference. It's hard to understand how silencing a critical media, especially on matters of security, will make Egypt safer, but runs the risk of shutting down the same platform that the nation depends on to promote touring celebrities. Egypt has more to gain from utilising technologies evolution than finding ways to restrict it. 

Even more troublesome is the meddling of Parliament who instead of questioning the failures in security are proposing bills that would limit media and even social media. In the wake of the twin church bombing, Free Egyptians Party member Reyad Abdel Sattar told Parlamany that a monthly registration fee of EGP 200 should be imposed on Egyptians in order to allow the government to monitor social media users and weed out those using them to attack state institutions. Aside from being completely unfeasible, this decision is more likely to be used in silencing discontent instead of weeding out violent extremists. Hopefully, when this discussion takes place, someone will raise a red flag and explain that the reason tourism drastically increased from the 90s is because of the internet and social media, and that meddling with it will make it almost impossible to reach 2010 tourist influx levels.

The strategy to use celebrities to promote tourism makes sense, but even if Egypt solves its security issues, the execution still leaves much to desire. The first question is who is selecting these celebrities? And is the goal to attract tourists or impress Egyptians? Sure older Egyptians may fondly remember Yanni and Pele, but these legends are no longer relevant and do not appeal to tourists or international media. However, if Egypt's government would put the effort into booking ColdPlay at the Pyramids, you would have tourists from all over the world booking their flights, while exciting Egyptians who have been petitioning for this performance for years. Will Smith was a good choice as he still has plenty of appeal both inside and out of Egypt. But trying to book Salma Hayak for a second visit, or an aged Sylvester Stallone will not make global headlines. In this regard, we should be looking at the example being set in Saudi Arabia, whose Entertainment minister recognises that instead of booking famous celebrities past their prime, the government should book less established actors who are currently on TV's hottest shows like Game of Thrones' Charles Dance and Breaking Bad's Giancarlo EspositoBooking the mother of dragons or Jon Snow at the Pyramids would infinitely be more viral and possibly cheaper than Sylvester Stallone.

This brings us finally to the jackassery of Zahi Hawass. Each time a celebrity visits, Zahi Hawass seems to be Egypt's official tour guide. Yes, the former minister knows plenty about Ancient Egypt's past, but he has squandered any of the positive PR on multiple occasions by calling our guests idiots. When Beyonce paid a visit in 2009, he insulted and allegedly banned her, resulting in international media running headlines like 'Rude' Beyoncé banned from Pyramids by 'Egypt's Indiana Jones'. We thought he would have learned his lesson from this, but when Messi recently visited, the former minister was on television that night telling Egyptians that the football legend was also an idiot. This needs to stop and surely there are other Egyptologists who can give tours and keep their mouth shut.

Hopefully, these issues will be resolved before the Pope arrives because Egypt cannot afford to squander another golden publicity moment. Security should be the priority, but nothing will change without acknowledging that it is a problem and creatively solving the issue must go beyond using new powers to silence critics while destroying the very same platforms Egypt's tourism recovery depends on.

Photography and Video by #MO4Network's #MO4Production
Will Smith Photo courtesy of This is Wonderful Egypt

*The views expressed in this op-ed are the author's and don't necessarily reflect Cairo Scene's.