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Saturday, September 14, 2013

Is Egypt Ready For A Primetime Tourism Redebut?

Roland and I had such a beautiful house picked out to rent in Damascus's old city, Beit al Kamar. I hope it's still standing. I doubt we'll ever see it-- and I'm happy the owners are living in Nashville. But, right now I would say Syria, Yemen, Iraq and Afghanistan are probably not places you should consider going on vacation-- not unless your idea of a vacation includes gunfights and staying out of the way of Predator drones and chemical weapons attacks. But what about Egypt? Is it time to start thinking about a nice holiday along the Nile? Most travel agents will say no. CNN says no, Condé Nast says no and the international tourism industry says Egypt's tourist sector is on the verge of collapse.
“Four million Egyptians are employed in the tourism sector, millions of families live off of this, the bread to feed their children is at risk,” said Egypt’s Minister of Tourism, Hisham Zaazou, addressing around 30 Italian journalists hosted in Sharm El Sheikh, (to witness and report that it is a safe place for tourists) as he struggles to convince the Italian and European governments to reconsider their travel advice.

"We are appalled at the position of the European governments that do not recommend travel to Egypt,” the Minister said. “We are moving full steam ahead towards democracy. Riots in Cairo are in decline; we are a people who love peace. The decision of the EU to limit the financial aid only to the economic and social sectors does not help foreign visitors to come to us.
Now even Roland has given up advocating that we go to Damascus or Yemen. But he's gotten it into his head that now would be the right time for another vacation in Egypt. He has a feeling there are lots of good deals now and that the main sites won't be as crowded. Remember two things, last time we visited the Pyramids, Zahi Hawass himself closed the whole thing down so we could tour the Great Pyramid all by ourselves while hundreds of Belgians and Italians sweltered on line in the sun. And, last time we were there, the country nearly emptied out of tourists because a bunch of scimitar-wielding religious fanatics slaughtered, beheaded and disemboweled 60 or so foreign tourists at the Temple of Hatshepsut across the Nile from Luxor. We had a huge cruise ship to ourselves (plus a couple of elderly Brits returning to London after a life in Oman). So, we really did get to see everything there was to see without any annoying crowds of tourists to spoil it. I say, let's not push our luck. Roland insisted I read this account which, makes revisiting Egypt now sound attractive... at least to him. (Apparently Chinese tourists, who we noticed are starting to dominate Europe, are also dominating Egypt. The travel in huge groups and hold everything up at every conceivable bottle neck.
The lone tourist bus curved through the desert past the limestone-topped Pyramid of Khafre, leaving the camel handlers and postcard sellers trudging through its dust. It rounded one last turn, then settled atop a plateau overlooking the pyramid and its two mammoth siblings.

The bus door flapped open, unleashing a dozen Chinese tourists into the empty parking lot. They strolled toward the plateau's edge, cameras and parasols in hand, just ahead of the vendors scrambling at the prospect of a few paying customers. For a moment, the scene was perfect-- the solitary caravan approaching from the desert, the heat shimmering off the stone blocks, the majestic desolation.

It helped that we were mostly alone that hot, late-August morning in the heart of one of the world's best-known tourist destinations. I was in town to help cover the troubles that had seized Egypt over the past two months and had found a calm morning to make it out to the Cairo suburbs, where the pyramids mark the start of the vast brown desert. I didn't expect to find the usual crowds there, but still the emptiness and quiet were a surprise. Closer to the pyramids, the crowds weren't much thicker: a British family, a scattering of Arab couples, Somali women posing for pictures in flowing headscarves, everyone easy and unhurried.

Years ago, before the 2011 revolution that started Egypt's political roller coaster, visiting the pyramids could quickly become a two-hour flight through clouds of tour groups. Visitors, guides and vendors jostled in front of the ancient marvels, as a steady line of buses emerged from the brown blocks of the city.

Now, after a summer of coup, protests and massacres, the flocks have flown to other spots, abandoning such draws as the Egyptian Museum, the ancient ruins of Luxor farther down the Nile and, of course, the pyramids of Giza. In mid-August, arrivals at Egyptian airports dropped by more than 40 percent after the military brutally cleared two sit-in camps protesting the July ouster of President Mohammed Morsi, of the Muslim Brotherhood.

That has devastated the country's all-important tourism industry, which makes up more than a tenth of all economic activity. But it's proved a boon for travelers willing to defy official warnings from the U.S. and other countries against coming to Egypt.

Hotel and restaurant prices have dropped, sometimes by half, as has the Egyptian pound, making the already affordable country even more so. Once at the sights, travelers find themselves usually alone with some of the world's greatest treasures, be they gold death masks of pharaohs or the sublime centuries-old mosques soaring above old Cairo. Tourist sites have become forlorn, even serene-- more befitting these dignified survivors of the millennia.

Australian Mary Hill said she had been traveling across Europe with a friend over this summer and hadn't kept up on the news from Egypt. However, they had already booked a visit, and were set on going, even after they heard about the bloodshed.

"We were at a stage in our trip where we had to take a chance," Hill said as she stepped out of the child pharaoh Tutankhamen's exhibit at the Egyptian Museum. "And in the end, it's been positive."

"From the country's perspective, of course, it's not good."

The dearth of business has driven already predatory vendors and guides into a frenzy, with the U.S. Embassy in Egypt even issuing an alert in June about "over-aggressive vendors." Visitors had come across "angry groups of individuals surrounding and pounding on the vehicles," the embassy reported, "and in some cases attempting to open the vehicle's doors."

On my pyramid trip, one young guide jumped onto the back of our car and clung to the rear window, while our driver abruptly braked and zoomed ahead and wove from lane to lane to try to shake him off. Only a block later did the driver convince the guide's friends to keep the young man off the bumper.

Then came the vendors inside the pyramid complex, who tried out their usual pitches before moving onto more desperate Plan Bs.

"There's no business here, there are no more tourists," one camel rider said, the ache in his voice sounding genuine. "I have a family. We need to eat."

In the winding alleys of the Khan el-Khalili bazaar in old Cairo, merchants tried to physically stop what rare visitors they spotted walking through as they hocked limestone miniature pyramids and bright cotton fabrics.

Shop owner Mohamed Hafez said his sales had fallen by "100 percent" since Egyptians first took to the streets 2 1/2 years ago.

"There used to be a lot of tourists, a lot of nationalities," Hafez said, while cooling down in the air-conditioned inner sanctum of his souvenir shop. "Now, it's nothing. We just want safety, no more revolutions."

Wooing back those visitors has become a top priority, even with all the military vehicles and checkpoints in the streets. Dallas-based college student Deniz Mustafa had, in fact, flown into Cairo as part of a volunteer project inviting youth from around the world to visit and tout Egypt's top tourist sites.

Two weeks after his arrival in July, however, Morsi was violently removed, and the volunteer project was cancelled. Mustafa responded by hitting the road and seeing Egypt, flying down to Luxor and up to the Red Sea resort of Dahab, where empty restaurants were offering 50 percent discounts on entire menus.

Mustafa and a fellow volunteer from China had since moved onto the Egyptian Museum, where they were studying the ancient granite statues of Egyptian nobles and the small wooden ships buried with pharaohs.

"Any time you go to a temple or climb Mount Sinai, you have a more personal experience now," Mustafa said. "It's just you and the tour guide up there."

That peace was without a doubt a fragile one. The city still goes dead every Friday afternoon in anticipation of Muslim Brotherhood protests that can turn violent in an instant. Nighttime curfews were also in effect while I was there, effectively shutting down Cairo's buzzing nightlife.

Everyone was nervously waiting for the Brotherhood's response to the repression and expecting the worst. On one night in the bar of my hotel, the pops of explosions outside immediately silenced all conversation, as we wondered whether the violence was indeed back. A quick check out on the street confirmed they had only been fireworks.

For visitors, it all made for a rare glimpse into a proud country trying to figure out its future and also a chance to see Egypt free of many of the usual hassles. The dangers were real but mostly manageable.

The threat of a U.S. strike on Syria, however, made some Americans nervous about revealing their nationality. And if the political troubles flare up again in Egypt, even the bravest traveler will have to think twice about coming.

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