Egyptian Revival: One on One with Bob Drumm, Alexander + Roberts
Bob Drumm, president of the 65-year-old tour operator Alexander + Roberts (formerly known as General Tours), was one of the tour operators invited by the Egyptian Tourist Authority to attend the recent Egypt Luxor Conference held in Cairo and Luxor, Egypt.
The conference was created so that the ETA could learn from Americans in the travel industry how it might be able to change the perception by Americans of Egypt as an unsafe place to travel. TravelPulse was also represented at the conference.
Alexander + Roberts has been operating in Egypt since 1970.
TravelPulse: Can you tell us about the suggestions you made to the Egyptian Tourist Authority about how they might improve perceptions of Egypt?
Bob Drumm: An advisory board would be very helpful so we could all pitch in not only with our thinking but also with certain steps we could contribute to, particularly on the social media front, to try to present a rounder picture of what’s happening in Egypt.
There are many issues at work in the Middle East. They’re kind of conjoined in Egypt, but I think it’s wrong to look at the various countries of the Middle East as all being the same.
TP: What do you mean by “conjoined”?
BD: Various issues in Middle Eastern countries are conjoined in the minds of Americans, such as ISIS, which is not present in Egypt proper, but which is devastating parts of Iraq and Syria. It really isn’t impacting life or the touristic opportunities still in Egypt. And yet, Americans tend to lump the entire Middle East together
I think there are distinctions among these societies. They may be Islamic, but all they function differently. These areas aren’t all the same. I think that distorts our ability in presenting travel opportunities to people.
TP: You said your business of travel to Egypt has gone up substantially this year. How are your guests reacting?
BD: The guests we have coming back from Egypt and Jordan, they are thrilled with experiences. There’s something to be said the fact that the experience is still so incredibly rich there and the people are so supportive and positive about having Americans there with them.
I was just struck repeatedly about that and the fact that our view from North America and the view on the ground when you’re there in Egypt are really discrepant. That was striking to me.
I was also struck by some of my conversations with Egyptians. A woman approached me, a young woman who spoke English perfectly, and wanted to know why the Americans didn’t like the Egyptians any more.
I told her that’s absolutely not the case. But it was so surprising to have that so forthrightly put. And you know I think a lot of people in various parts of world feel when we stay away from a place it’s because we disdain them or dislike them. They bring it to a personal level, which is of course the level on which we interact with people when we travel. I found that very surprising.
TP: As complex as the situation in Egypt is, it seems that Americans don’t quite know what to make of it. Many saw the overthrow of President Morsi as just being military coup. But that is not the way Egyptians perceived it.
BD: The Egyptians believed it wasn’t a military coup as such, but the saving of their country. I think that’s how they perceived it, at least the people I had contact with there.
I think they want some demonstration of American embrace. And of course a great way to do that is travel, because 20 percent of their economy related to tourism. Just seeing Americans there again is very encouraging to people.
Our business is up, though from a very low level. But it is performing better. And there is also a misunderstanding on the part of many Americans that there must be a travel warning to Egypt because of where it’s located in the world. But in fact there is no travel warning. There is not even a travel alert.
TP: You stayed after the conference. How was the rest of your trip?
BD: I stayed in the hotel we use in Cairo, the Kempinski Nile, which is a boutique hotel with only 100 rooms. It’s number one in Cairo. It’s great for the kind of small groups that we do. You don’t feel lost there. It’s not big and cavernous like many hotels all over the world, so it does give a level of personal service that is just as strong now as it has been over the last several years. The hotel scene is very positive there, I thought.
JW Marriot is taking over the management of the Mena House. That will be Marriott’s third hotel in Cairo. Western countries are very involved in hotel scene. There’s quite a bit of investment going on in Egypt because it’s a big population, 90 million, the biggest in the Middle East. I just read that Nestle has made a big investment there building new factories over the next five years.
TP: Egypt’s rejection of Morsi seemed to be based on the fact that it’s a very progressive country and its people did not want to be dragged into a fundamentalist society.
BD: Egypt is quite diverse. Not all women cover their heads. Western fashion is pretty apparent in a lot of settings there. I spent time with a company in Cairo we’re linked to and they just opened a new office in a part of Cairo called Fayed. It consists of a lot of housing development that has occurred last 10 years, with shopping, restaurants, mall settings, not unlike America actually. It was very busy, very modern, people working hard in offices, enjoying lunch.
We had lunch in a wonderful Lebanese restaurant where you could sit out in the street and watch the passersby. It was a very cosmopolitan atmosphere. There are a lot of dimensions to Egypt. It’s not a single-minded kind of environment. It’s very diverse.
They didn’t want to be closed off from the world. That’s the feeling I got from everyone. They embrace the fact that they’re Islamic, but they don’t want that to be impediment to growing into the future. I think there were a lot of forces at work in the Morsi overthrow. It was a complex situation, which is why I think the U.S. probably didn’t handle it very well.
Once we took a stand as we did for the Arab Spring and the budding of democracy there — because we did take an active role — and then when Morsi was elected according to what outwardly seemed like a democratic process, when he was overthrown it would mean the U.S. would have to support what was a coup, as it was described in many quarters. And that’s an awkward position for the U.S. to take after embracing the inauguration of democracy there. It was a very awkward period.
Egypt is a complex place, like most places in the world. There is no place on earth where you can see such glorious things in the span of a 10-day trip. The preservation of antiquity there is still extraordinary. Despite social change and political change, all of that still exists and we saw it.
Archaeological digs are still going on. It was very heartwarming for me to see a Polish archaeological team opening a new wing to a remarkable archaeological site, the Hapshepsut Temple.
All over the country there are digs going on. It was mentioned when we were between the paws of the sphinx that all these discoveries about the workers’ life are coming to light, how they lived, where they lived, what they ate, what they died from. All of this stuff is being examined and revealed. So it’s still a very active; the whole country is an archaeological site. I don’t think any other place in the world has that.
TP: How do you see the future from the standpoint of being a tour operator?
BD: In terms of our product there we’ve always been operating. We never really stopped. We had a big downturn obviously in traffic, as did everyone. But there have always been independent travelers who wanted to go to Egypt. Surprisingly over the last year we had families going. And you and I saw some families there in Luxor; European families, but multiple generations, because obviously the appeal of Egypt is so strong to children, young adults, and older people. It really does span in terms of its offerings. Every kid’s going to be excited about the Pyramids and Sphinx and the hieroglyphics, which abound.
This year we are seeing an increase. It may be because every place in world has its perceived dangers these days. And also it’s been four years since the changes in government there and if you’re going to go in your lifetime, sometimes you just have to say, “I’m going to go now.”
There are a lot of elements leading to an increase in travel there. The value is very strong now. When people discuss — because word of mouth still very important — people reassure other people, “I’ve just been to Egypt. It’s remarkable.”
When they are asked if it was safe, they say, “Yeah, totally safe. Everyone was so warm and welcoming,”
Those are the things people come back with. That’s what we hear from travelers. So I think that is generating a stronger feeling about let’s go now.
When you leave for Egypt people say, “Be careful. Are you sure it’s OK to go now?” But when you come back they are very eager to hear, “What was it like?”
So I think it has that draw to it, like, “Maybe I’ll wait a little bit but, gee, what was it really like?” That will turn opinion over time.
More by David Cogswell
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