In any place highly dependent on tourism, there’s money to be made in selling souvenirs. But when the tourists stop coming, those businesses and manufacturers are out of luck.
That’s what happened in Egypt following the 2011 revolution. Now that some of those tourists are coming back, the government there is trying to prop up the handicraft manufacturers that remain.
Forty-one-year-old Mohamed el-Yamaami’s hands are stained black from decades of polishing intricately cast bronze lamps and grills in the back alleys of Cairo’s Khan el-Khalili bazaar. He blames Chinese imports for undercutting the prices of handmade goods like his.
“The majority of them used to be made in workshops [around here],” he says. “It provided the livelihood to many people. Now China makes them, for cheaper.”
Many manufacturers went out of business after the revolution, and those that remained suddenly found their prices undercut by Chinese goods. So in April, the Egyptian government banned imports of traditional tourist items like miniature pyramids, “papyru,s” and special lanterns. The move was welcomed by Egyptians, even those who sell the imports, like shopkeeper Omar Azzouz.
“As long as imports are allowed,” he says, “I would never manufacture. Something imported is cheaper. Why would I buy local, more expensive products?” Azzouz says about half of the statues of pharaohs, tea sets, and other knickknacks in his shop are Chinese. Locals estimate suppliers still have enough in stock to keep markets flooded with “Made in China” tourist items for quite some time, but Azzouz says he looks forward to when those run out.
“You would be forced to buy an Egyptian product,” he says. “Tourists will buy it, even if it is more expensive.”
Neither the Chinese-Egyptian Chamber of Commerce nor the Chinese Embassy in Cairo were available to comment. But information from the Chinese Ministry of Commerce shows exports to Egypt decreased 15 percent the month the ban was announced, although there’s no explanation listed for the drop.
Back in his cramped Khan el-Khalili workshop, Mohamed el-Yamaani looks forward to the day his products will only be competing on quality, not massive price differences.
“Our work has a special style,” he boasts. “If China makes this, I swear it won’t be sold.”
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