x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 18 January 2018

In Egypt, crowd-free travel is the new normal

Susan Hack reports from Cairo on efforts to get Egyptian tourism back on track - and what travellers can expect.

Foreign tourists are returning to Egypt in a trickle. Susan Hack for The National
Foreign tourists are returning to Egypt in a trickle. Susan Hack for The National

At the foot of Giza Plateau last week, instead of the usual cacophony of hawkers and guides shouting above the tourist hordes, I heard only desert breezes and the cooing of pigeons perched on the head of the 4,700-year-old Sphinx. In the car park next to the Great Pyramid of Cheops, a dozen Egyptian men and boys carrying armloads of postcards ran towards a lone tour bus carrying a group of seven South Koreans, instantly outnumbering them as they disembarked. Without their usual brigade of clients, dozens of camels and skinny horses stood dozing in a line next to the empty seats of the Sound and Light show.

"It's not crowded, which is bad for local people," said Bea Lomer, a traveller from Ugchelen in the Netherlands, standing in the sun with her companion, Roel Kollard. "But I have to admit this is a wonderful situation for taking photographs."

At the end of their first trip to Egypt, booked before the outbreak of protests on January 25, the pair were touring the capital at the end of an itinerary that included a Nile cruise and a stay at the Red Sea resort town of Sharm el Sheikh. "We saw only five other boats on the river, and many more docked with no customers," Bea recalled. "We have felt completely safe, in large part because people have been so welcoming, thanking us profusely for coming at this difficult time."

In addition to visiting millennia-old monuments, they experienced Egypt's revolution fever first-hand when their cruise ship docked at the temple of Kom Ombo. There were no other tourists, but a political demonstration calling for the ouster of the local antiquities chief was underway.

Two months after the start of largely peaceful demonstrations that drove former president Hosni Mubarak from power on February 11, foreign tourists are returning to Egypt in a trickle rather than a flood. Uncrowded beaches, the lack of queues at tombs and museums, plus discounts offered by hotels and Nile cruise ships make the next six months a unique time to travel to the cradle of civilisation, according to officials hoping that exhilaration over the country's youth revolution - and Egypt's compelling combination of sunshine and pharaonic antiquities - will eventually translate into a tourism rebound.

"Welcome back," reads the optimistic cover of this month's issue of Horus, the in-flight magazine of Egyptair, which was forced to cancel 75 per cent of its flights in February. As Egypt lost an estimated US$1 billion (Dh3.67bn) in tourism revenue amid an 80-per-cent drop in tourist arrivals compared with the February to April period last year, tour operators diverted clients to cultural destinations in Turkey and beaches in the Canary Islands. (Russia, yet to lift its Egypt travel warning, has sent many of its sun-seeking holidaymakers to Dubai).

Tourism is Egypt's second-biggest source of foreign currency, ahead of oil and Suez Canal receipts, and employs 3.5 million people. About 14.7 million tourists visited in 2010, and the country is banking on hopes for 25 million annual arrivals by 2020. To entice foreigners, the ministry of tourism has launched an advertising campaign using slogans such as "Come see where it all happened" and "Tahrir Square - from Egypt with love", a reference to Egypt's newest attraction, Tahrir Square, where millions of Egyptians of all ages and walks of life gathered during the 18 days of protests that brought an end to Mubarak's 29-year rule - the third-longest in Egypt's history after the pharaohs Ramses II and Amenophis III.

The square is also where the colonial-era antiquities museum housing King Tut's gold mask is located, but that's not where Sally Mustafa, a tour guide, is most proud to take her clients.

"We have all this new history to share," says the 25-year-old, wearing aviator shades and an Islamic headscarf. "I will show them where protesters had their tents and where the regime charged into them on camels." Next to the Egyptian Museum and on the Kasr al Nil bridge leading into the square, vendors sell revolution icons, including laminated badges with the photos of martyrs, licence plate stickers celebrating January 25, hats, ribbons and large red, white and black Egyptian flags that many local women have taken to wearing as head scarves.

Since the ruling military council and interim government reopened major museums and antiquities sites on February 18, at least 24 countries, including Britain and Germany, have lifted or downgraded Egypt travel warnings, and major international tour operators are resuming operations. Air traffic into Hurghada, in the south, has regained the pre-revolution level of 58 inbound fights per day; for their part, UAE-based airlines, including Etihad and Air Arabia, are currently offering return flights to Egypt from just Dh990, including taxes.

Tourists and business travellers are more slowly returning to the capital, where the peaceful image of the revolution was undermined by international TV footage of thugs attacking protesters and journalists and of panicked foreigners fleeing the airport. Nonetheless, occupancy at the city's largest hotel, the 1,089-room Cairo Marriott, has risen to 35 per cent, up from 25 per cent just 10 days ago, front-desk staff said this week.

Luxor and Aswan saw little of Cairo's turmoil but now face the problem of rising spring temperatures that traditionally bring the Nile cruising season to close by the end of May.

"There aren't very many tourists in Luxor at the moment, but the ones who are here are having a great time," says Konny Matthews, the manager of the Al Moudira boutique hotel located on the west bank of the Nile near Madinet Habu. "It's quiet, they don't have to wait in any lines to get into the temples and right now the weather is still fantastic. But for us the whole spring season has been a disaster."

The hotel, which, like many in Upper Egypt, is suffering from a 10 per cent occupancy rate, is offering a 20 per cent discount from now until the end of September; others are offering more drastic price cuts.

"I don't think the tourism collapse will be as bad as the period after the 1997 Hatshepsut Temple massacre," Matthews predicts. "If elections in September are calm, I think the next winter season will be fine."

The Red Sea resort of Sharm el Sheikh has also become used to rapid cycles of tourism drop-off and recovery following the Sinai hotel bombings in 2004 and 2005, the 2008 financial crisis and a series of fatal shark attacks last December. (The government hopes new shark nets and stiff penalties on tourists feeding fish and ships dumping garbage at sea will prevent a recurrence).

"Egypt has emerged a better and stronger country ... Come and see for yourself," says the post-revolution campaign from Sonesta, which is offering a 22 per cent discount from now until June 10 (excluding Easter) on its signature resort in Sharm el Sheikh, a few miles down the coast from the Maritime Jolie Ville where the Mubarak family has been exiled to its private villa.

To tide Red Sea beach hotels from Taba to Sharm el Sheikh, Hurghada, Port Ghalib and Marsa Alam through the latest downturn, the government is contemplating a $17 million subsidy for charter flights and has asked European operators threatening a 50 per cent schedule reduction this summer flights to cut flights by no more than 20 per cent. Summer is traditionally the period when families from the Gulf travel to Cairo and Alexandria to escape the higher temperatures back home. Mounir Fakri Abdelnour, the newly appointed tourism minister, a member of the interim cabinet who is also the general secretary of the Wafd Party, is reportedly also considering subsidising discounts, starting in May, for children on Egyptair and for hotels that allow kids under 12 to stay and eat free at hotels.

Egyptians, meanwhile, are adjusting to the new normal. Cairo schools and universities have reopened, people have returned to work and the democratic transition is evolving in a more or less orderly fashion, especially compared to events elsewhere in the region. Last Saturday, an unprecedented 41 per cent of eligible Egyptian voters, many casting a ballot for the first time, enthusiastically participated in a referendum on changes to the constitution that set the stage for parliamentary elections in June and in August for the presidency. The capital of 18 million, which managed to function throughout the uprising without a police force, has returned to its usual state of chaos, its daily traffic jams sometimes gnarled by a wave of revolution-inspired protests, many aimed at ousting employers with ties to the Mubarak regime. The city is cleaner than it has ever been as young activists continue to help collect garbage. School walls from the pyramids road to the ritzy enclave of Zamalek are decorated with murals celebrating the revolution, while even garbage bins and lamp posts have been painted in the red, white and black stripes of the Egyptian flag.

Still, dark corners remain. Police have not returned in full force to the country's antiquities sites, 24 of which have been looted since the revolution began. Looters damaged or destroyed 70 objects in the Egyptian Museum during unrest in Tahrir Square, and 63 artefacts, including several items from King Tut's treasure, are still missing. (Tut's gold mask is safe, and visitors will not notice the losses amid the museum's astonishing 130,000 objects.) In the past two weeks, thugs abused female protesters on International Women's Day, while the army, tarnishing its neutral image, resorted to using Tasers, batons and whips to evict the last residents of Tahrir Square's tent city set up by protesters during the main uprising. The police are not yet fully redeployed, so the midnight-to-6am curfew is not strictly enforced, a situation that has led to rumours of night-time crime on the roads.

"At four in the morning I'm sleepless," says the proprietor of Villa 36, a French beauty salon in a Dokki mansion frequented by Egyptian socialites and ambassadors' wives. "Many of my expat clients have not come back. The husbands of the ones who live here don't want their wives travelling across Cairo alone, and because of the curfew there are fewer parties and dinners, and need for my services."

On March 9, an Egyptian student at the American University of Cairo managed to escape unharmed after his family driver and an accomplice briefly kidnapped him and demanded a ransom of a million Egyptian pounds (Dh618,515).

Meanwhile, the ongoing loss of income has devastated families reliant on tourism. "Normally in winter I can make 8,000 to 10,000 pounds [Dh4,948 to Dh6,180] a month based on tips," says Sayid Ahmed, a freelance pyramids guide who supports his wife and three young children. Outside the wall protecting Giza Plateau lie dozens of carcasses of horses and camels that have been allowed to starve to death because without tourist riders their owners can no longer afford to feed them. British veterinary charities and the Egyptian Society for Mercy to Animals have stepped in to donate feed and medical care to the owners of the plateau's 3,000 working horses and camels to help as many as possible survive the tourist drought. In desperation, unemployed youths form blockades on the Pyramids Road, jumping on the bonnet of any taxi carrying foreign passengers to coral them towards riding stables where they earn client commissions.

If you want to take advantage of a post-revolution travel bargain, and don't wish to join a package tour, it will be worth the extra money to hire a private guide and driver, not just to inject money into the economy and support the fledgling democracy, but to ensure safe travel at night and a personal buffer zone during the daytime. "A holiday in the end has to be a holiday," says Bea Zomer, the Dutch visitor. "We did a lot of research before we came and decided the risks to travellers were not too high. It's not worth going if you can't be relaxed."


Flight deals

Etihad Airways (www.etihadairways.com) has return flights from Abu Dhabi to Cairo from Dh1,035 return, including taxes.

Egyptair (www.egyptair.com) has return flights from Abu Dhabi to Cairo from Dh1,105, return including taxes.

Air Arabia (www.airarabia.com) has return direct flights from Sharjah to Alexandria from Dh1,077 return, including taxes, and return flights from Sharjah to Luxor from Dh990, including taxes.

Emirates (www.emirates.com) has return flights from Dubai to Cairo from Dh1,645, including taxes.