Egypt's Tourism Rebirth
By David Cogswell
August 28, 2012 11:45 PM
All countries are unique, but Egypt is in a class by itself. The age, mystery and colossal scale of its ancient monuments have no parallel. As a result, Egypt is one of the most sought after travel destinations in the world, a perennial favorite. Its economy also is highly dependent on its powerful attraction to tourists, but its tourism industry does have its setbacks.
Egypt tourism’s most recent setback, and in some ways most tragic, was the long drought brought on by the movement that became known as the Arab Spring. It was one of the most powerful and moving events of recent times, a peaceful but determined uprising from the Egyptian people demanding a more democratic government, more participation in the affairs of their own country. Led by a young generation of sophisticated, worldly and tech-savvy Egyptians using social media, the people of Egypt actually brought about a peaceful transition of power in their country to a more democratic form of government.
It was one of those breathtaking moments in world history, comparable to the collapse of the Berlin Wall, when apparently invincible power crumbles under the force of peaceful people armed only with a just cause. It was an inspiration to people around the world and set off a chain reaction of similar uprisings throughout the Middle East, but none with quite the spectacular success of the democracy movement in Egypt.
While the police and army could not bring down the movement, the people of Egypt were punished for their success in a cruelly ironic way by the collapse of the country’s tourism industry. Instead of people flocking in even greater numbers to Egypt to witness the flowering of a new culture of democracy alongside of the greatest archeological monuments in the world, tourists stayed away. Instead of rewarding the country for its brave break with autocratic tradition and its movement toward western democracy, American tourists punished the country, inadvertently to be sure, by staying away and denying the country its lifeblood, the income from its most essential industry, tourism.
Cutting off a people’s economic lifeblood is a prescription for civil disorder that sets the stage for tyrants to take charge. Egypt endured this condition for a year and a half when the country was essentially abandoned by the West. But somehow the fortitude of the Egyptian people was sufficient to enable them to hold out through a period of economic strangulation while the new government put its house in order.
Tour operators wrung their hands as demand for their popular Egypt programs fell through the floor and it seemed there was nothing anyone could do. All they could do was wait for the Egyptian elections scheduled for June and hope that American tourists would start to flow back to Egypt again. Now the elections have taken place and the stage is set. Hopefully for Egypt, the long wait is over. The country can return to economic health under a new, elected government.
Tour operators have their programs in place and are ready for the return. It’s starting, though it seems painfully slow as the industry waits for Americans to notice the change and get moving again. The Egyptian Tourist Authority and tour operators are looking for ways to get their attention. It’s hard to imagine how to improve on the tourism product of Egypt, but there is one recent development that actually does that.
Last spring Egypt’s government opened a section of the Nile that has been closed for more than 15 years. Abercrombie & Kent recently unveiled new programs that include the longer cruises now possible since the opening. Before the new opening of the Nile, the standard itinerary combined a visit to Cairo with a three- or four-day cruise of the Upper Nile, connected by a short plane trip. Now the Nile is unobstructed and it’s possible to take the whole trip as a cruise.
A&K is offering a new 16-day program under its Marco Polo Club brand that includes the newly opened stretch of the Nile. The company’s new Splendors of Egypt program includes a 10-day cruise on the luxurious Nile Adventurer through newly accessible places like Beni Suef, Beni Hassan and Tel El Amarna, as well as the popular places that were standard inclusions on cruise itineraries prior to the opening, such as Abydos, Denderah, Luxor (ancient Thebes), Edfu, Kom Ombo and Aswan.
According to Jean Fawcett, media relations manager for A&K, the distance between Cairo and Aswan is about 603 miles. The distance between Luxor and Aswan is 139 miles, which is the distance traveled by most Nile cruise ships. Therefore A&K will be sailing an additional 464 miles up the Nile. The total distance now covered up the Nile is 603 miles starting in Cairo and ending in Aswan.
The Nile opening allows for a long, relaxed cruise, as well as a rich new menu of sightseeing that has been outside the tourism paths. “The itinerary will change dramatically as it covers Egypt's history in its entirety from the time of King Menes, the founder of the first dynasty during the Old Kingdom, passing by sites belonging to the Middle Kingdom, New Kingdom, Greco-Roman, Coptic Christian and Islamic eras,” says Fawcett. “The itinerary is 16 days long so much longer than the average Egypt program that includes a three- or four-night cruise between Luxor and Aswan.”
In other good news for Egypt, the country was removed from the U.S. State Department’s list of travel alerts. Tour operators in the U.S. report that business is starting to come back in and they are eagerly waiting for the trickle to become a torrent. “We’re seeing a lot of interest a lot of phone calls and brochure requests,” says Marc Kazlauskas, president of Insight Vacations. “I think people are waiting and seeing, and as soon as they see a sign that makes them feel more comfortable I think it will come back very strong. We can tell by our website, the pages they’re viewing.”
Ronen Paldi, president of Ya’lla Tours, says business is coming back slowly but surely. “We get more phone calls, more interest and more bookings,” he says. “There is much more than what we saw this time last year. I’m an eternal optimistic, and also a realist. I think that this time the optimism is in order.”
Jeff Russill, vice president of innovation for G Adventures, says Egypt has gone through many ups and downs in the last few decades. “Each time it springs back as a destination, and that is due to the overwhelming interest people have in it,” he says. “It’s a bucket list destination. Even if arrivals haven’t caught up to interest yet, they will due to all the pent up demand that will come through in the next couple years.”
Cassie Dittrich, a spokesperson for Central Holidays, says her company is beginning to see a much greater interest in Egypt travel now that the new government is in place and the elections went so smoothly. “We have been receiving daily requests and several group quotes already for 2013,” she says. “Additionally we are hosting four travel agent fam trips to Egypt this fall and three of the four fams have already sold out. There has been a significant increase in travel agent interest in visiting Egypt through our fams and because of this we are planning additional Egypt fams in 2013.”
Mohamed Hegezy, director-consul for Egyptian Tourist Authority, says business is indeed returning. “In June we had a 20 increase over June 2011,” he says. “We’re still not up to 2010 levels, but we’re on the right track. Even if we didn’t reach or exceed numbers of 2010 are in the recovery process. We expect by the end of the year to be back to our normal numbers.”
To reach those 2010 levels, Egypt would have needed an additional 10 percent increase, so with a 20 percent increase it’s two thirds of the way back. Not a bad start. Like many others I’m rooting for the good people of Egypt. My heart is with them and their democratic revolution. Let’s hope many Americans will join them to experience their newly liberated country.
David Cogswell is executive editor covering tours, the Middle East and Africa for TravelPulse.com.