Still in Love with Egypt: Darlene Buonauro, President of Learning Through Travel
PHOTO: Darlene Buonauro between the paws of the Sphinx. (Photo courtesy of Learning Through Travel)
Darlene Buonauro’s recent trip to Egypt for the Egyptian Tourist Authority’s Luxor Conference was her 38th trip to Egypt. Buonauro first traveled to Egypt in 1988. She started her company, Bellmore, N.Y.-based Learning Through Travel, in 1999. She guides many of the tours that her company takes to Egypt, usually traveling there at least a few times every year. She’s been a lover of Egypt for a long time.
“I fell in love with it when I was in the sixth grade,” she said. “That’s when you start to learn about civilizations. I don’t know I just fell in love with it. I just had an immediate connection with it. Studying civilizations and the Pharaohs and being raised in Biblical family I always read the Bible and heard stories about Egypt and Moses, etc. It would always pique my interest. When I got into travel I knew that’s what I wanted to do, to specialize in Egypt and the Eastern Mediterranean.”
The Egyptian Tourist Authority organized a conference in Luxor in late February and invited some tour operators and media from the U.S. with the purpose of trying to come up with plans and strategies to help get the tourism industry past the fear of travel to Egypt that has strangled the industry for the past four years.
The trip was a combination of conferencing about the problems besetting the industry and taking the guests around to see some of the major sites. It was a lightning trip with only three full days on the ground, but it still provided some new experiences even for a tour operator who had visited Egypt 37 times before.
“The trip was amazing,” said Buonauro. “The sites we saw were amazing. I got to revisit Queen Nefertari’s tomb. I had been in there before, but had never been able to take photos in there, so that was an amazing treat.
“I have been to the paws of the sphinx before with Dr, Zahi Halaas, so it was good to get to return to it with the new director of the Pyramids, Antiquities Inspector Ashraf Mohie El-Din. I had never been in Seti I’s tomb before, so that was a treat.
“Going to the Grand Egyptian Museum — that was an amazing privilege because it’s not open yet. And is certainly not open to visit the labs and see the work they are doing on Tutankhamen’s other 3,500 pieces that were found in the tomb. We were really treated royalty on this trip.”
Learning Through Travel is also a dive specialist in the Red Sea area.
“I’m one of only U.S. operators who advertise dive trips with liveaboards, daily diving in the Red Sea and Sinai,” said Buonauro. “I attend all the travel shows that highlight diving. I am not a diver, but there was a need for somebody to get out there in the market, somebody that knows Egypt.”
Why would someone want to travel to Egypt to go diving?
“The water is clear 120 meters down,” said Buonauro. “It’s number two destination in the world of diving after the Great Barrier Reef.”
The company provides packages that include the diving experience with the overall Egypt experience, including Cairo, the Egyptian Museum, the Pyramids, the Sphinx and the Nile cruise to upper Egypt and then combine it with a diving experience from Hurghada or Marsa Alam, or a trip to Sharm al Sheikh.
Before the Egytian revolution, Learning Through Travel conducted 25 to 30 diving excursions to Egypt a year. But lately many of the callers say they want the diving experience, but want to skip Cairo and Upper Egypt.
“That’s why it was important to have the Luxor conference,” said Buonauro, “so we could try and work out people’s fear and why they don’t want to go to Cairo.”
For an Egypt specialist, it’s been a very hard four years.
“The industry needs to come up with a plan of how in the United States we can combat that fear. We need support from the Egyptian Tourist Authority in Washington, a PR firm that can get behind any news whether it’s good or bad. We need to get out on the road and educate agents, the people, as tour operators, with support of Egyptian government.”
But there is a light at the end of the tunnel. Tourism is starting to flow back to Egypt. Buonauro says her business is back to about 15 percent of what it was pre-revolution.
The rebound of Egypt’s tourism industry is rougher this time than ever before.
“In the past when there was a terrorist attack it would take six months to get back to normal,” said Buonauro. “Now it’s just taking so long. I think certainly there is a desire to go back and we are seeing pent-up demand with the educational groups, the alumni. With the change in government and some positive press, if we educate people we will see a change. We’re starting to see an increase again.”
More by David Cogswell
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