Baksheesh, or tipping, is a pervasive part of daily life in Egypt. It’s expected for any service or favor performed, no matter how small, for tourists and locals alike. It’s more common than a handshake. Westerners are generally amazed at how extensive it is.
Tips are a big deal to the average Egyptian whose income in 2015 was 28 percent likely to be below the poverty line, 32.5% in 2018. To add insult to injury, Egypt had an annual inflation rate of 10% or more for years, peaking at a staggering 28% in 1989, which did nothing but increase the ranks of the poor. In 2016, when the IMF made it a pre-condition for getting a $12 billion bailout, the exchange rate of the Egyptian pound was floated and promptly lost half its value, which was disastrous for an economy that depends on imports. Traditional subsidies on food, fuel and utilities were also cut in recent years. Poverty is getting worse, not better. It will explode with COVID-19.
With a situation this bleak, is it any wonder that anyone would rub fingers together or ask for baksheesh outright? It was never begging. Some service was always performed, even in the line of duty, such as a security guard walking with us on pyramid grounds or housekeeper on a Nile cruise who created whimsical towel art. This also happened with an airport luggage handler, alabaster shop employee, attendant at a temple entrance, the list goes on. Even after our tour guide Waleed collected a lump sum from each of us to take care of tipping on our behalf, the requests for tip were still made.
Before the trip, my wife and I amassed as many $1 bills as possible, taking the advice of travelers who on the internet claimed Egyptians would be ‘happy’ to accept foreign cash as eagerly as their own. Well, maybe. I found out more than once that Egyptian banks don’t do locals any favors by refusing to exchange $1 bills for pounds or piastres. One family in Abusir asked if someone on our tour could swap five ones for a five dollar bill for this reason.
To me as an American, an Egyptian pound (£E), which might be given to a toilet attendant, is equal to about $.06 (6 cents). Most tips are in the £E 5-10 range (32-63 cents). So it seems appropriate that I, as an American (for instance), be generous to those far less fortunate.
And I was willing. But there was one big problem.
It was a headache getting my hands on small bills. The problem was this. When I made an ATM cash withdrawal, it would be for a few thousand pounds (equivalent to a few hundred U.S. dollars), which would primarily be dispensed in £E 100 notes. Since £E 100 is a large amount for baksheesh, it brings up the problem of making change. (Rather than repeating how hard this is, I refer you to a similar post here.) Even when exchanging £E 100 at the hotel bank, I got back a fifty pound note, two twenties and a ten. In this respect, the infrastructure doesn’t support tourists and indirectly the people who rely on baksheesh. Egypt is not alone in this. I found the same problem in Morocco and I suspect it’s true in many other places of the world.
For the average Egyptian, everyday business is conducted in transactions much less than £E 100. There is a scarcity of small bills in Egypt, or it’s more likely that tourists like me can’t get our hands on them. I imagine that locals hang on to them dearly so they can function in the informal cash economy.
I don’t know what the solution is for anyone who wants to travel to Egypt. Not everyone will have a tour guide like ours to help ease the frustration. Am I discouraging travelers from visiting Egypt? Absolutely not. Baksheesh is a cultural phenomenon that tourists should acknowledge and accept. Egypt is a wonderful place. Sadly a visit, for now, will have to wait until the world returns to normal, insha’allah.
(Note: image above from treasuryvault.com)