The smoke produced by cigarettes will follow one nearly everywhere in Egypt: from a sidewalk, to ahwas, to an office or a restaurant. But it can no longer be found in the lobbies of the Cairo Marriott Hotel & Omar Khayyam Casino.
As of June 1, the Zamalek hotel’s lobbies are smoke-free, a first for Cairo.
Walking onto the hotel’s expansive grounds is a breath of fresh air. The hotel exudes its regal past with ease – it was once El-Gezira palace, constructed in 1889 under the supervision of Khedive Ismail Pasha.
The lobby is everything Cairo is often not: clean, efficient, orderly. Perhaps it is only fitting that smoking not be present here.
In an interview, Marriott’s general manager Ulrich Huth admitted that the decision was difficult, but one he was prepared to make. Huth said it bothered him that guests’ first impression of the hotel upon checking-in might be one of cigarette smoke. Some guests had complained as well.
Interestingly, Huth’s initiative was prompted not by health concerns, but rather by the recent renovation of one of the lobbies. Huth explained that the lobby was too pristine, too perfect – he could never allow anything to taint it. He decided that cigarette smoke would never fill the lobby, or any lobby in his hotel for that matter.
This initiative is nevertheless having a positive effect upon staff and guests. Though the measure began as a four-week experiment, Huth said after just two weeks it is readily apparent this should be permanent.
The Marriott is located in a country which has the highest rate of smoking per capita in the Middle East and North Africa. Over 40 percent of Egyptian men smoke, but the government is gradually introducing new anti-smoking legislations.
Recent bans on tobacco advertising and a prohibition on smoking in health and educational facilities, as well as warning labels on packs, are working to curb smoking and its deadly effects.
“It is a trend of the time, Huth said, also noting that he expects another hotel in Cairo will eliminate smoking in its lobbies before the summer is over.
In a city as polluted as Cairo, “even a smoker wants fresh air, Huth acknowledged.
Huth is himself an occasional smoker and extends empathy to those who smoke. He plans to accommodate smokers at the hotel through “elegant sofas with ashtrays placed outside entry-ways and a piano or cigar bar in which smoking is allowed.
Before implementing this new measure, drivers would linger in the lobby, “sitting around and smoking while they waited. But the drivers are now gone, and the lobby is a more welcoming and pleasant place.
Huth said he anticipated some resistance, but he actually hasn’t encountered any problems with this new ban. Just a few people who were unaware of the new rule have been caught smoking, and immediately stopped upon the request of staff.
There are now large oval signs throughout hotel that read “Smoking is permitted only in open air areas in English and Arabic.
Receptionist Marwa Sami said the response of customers was a matter of opinion – some were upset, others happy. But she feels they will return on account of the quality of the hotel.
Customers interviewed reported being pleased with the air quality and lack of smoke in the lobby.
Huth said the Cairo Marriott intends to have 50 percent of its rooms be non-smoking by the end of 2009.
Eventually, smoking could be banned in the hotel’s restaurants.
Changing attitudes about smoking will be challenging in a country where it is an accepted, commonplace activity of life. It may be small, gradual steps which are necessary to secure the comfort and well-being of all.