Ancient wonders, all to yourself

May 11, 2011

Tourism at Egypt’s Red Sea resorts, we read, has plummeted. At the Giza Pyramids, not one Western tourist could be seen by a Reuters correspondent as the sun set on an April weekday. Surely this makes it the perfect time to visit?

Egypt’s tourism minister has forecast that 2011 revenue will be 25 percent lower than the previous year, but even this may be bullish; many travel companies are offering large discounts. This has dealt a devastating blow to the millions of Egyptians (one in eight) whose livelihoods depend on the 14 million or so visitors who until this January visited annually.

Mass-market tour operators like TUI and Thomas Cook have responded to the decimation in demand by cutting Egypt itineraries and focusing on alternative destinations.

I sat down with Amr Badr, Abercrombie & Kent Egypt and the Middle East’s managing director, to see what local operators can do and are doing to welcome back the hordes. I found a man surprisingly optimistic, refusing to go down the unsustainable discount route.

His positivity stems from the fact that a lot has changed since the dark day of February and March, traditionally the strongest months for travel to Egypt. February saw arrivals close to zero; in March, people still weren’t so sure what to make of what was happening.

But as the travel bans were lifted by the British, Germans, Italian and French, things began to look up; indeed, Hala el-Khatib, secretary general of the Egyptian Hotels Association reported hotel occupancy was only down by just 15 percent in April compared to the same month a year ago.

“April has seen a very nice pick up,” Badr told me, “but it varied between the Red Sea, which was fuller than Cairo, and the classical upper-Egypt destinations like Luxor. [Despite] the corporate market being down and the Arab market being down, in general the April figures are pleasing.”

Abercrombie & Kent (A&K), an upmarket firm known for their curated travel experience, personalised service and well-trained guides, is looking at various mechanisms to add value, like adding enticing extras such as free guides, and upgrading rooms – add-ons that may appeal to the more sophisticated travellers who visit Egypt more than simple slash-and-burn discount deals.

But the Egyptian travel industry is also, interestingly, reaping some benefits from the January uprising. The country has always a strong educational element, and those who once travelled to revel in its history now want to experience the new post-revolutionary Egypt.

Badr says that the Tahrir Square tour has become ultra popular. He’s just signed a deal with National Geographic who are bringing back visitors from September. Tours will include a visit to the Square followed by a lecture by one of the new youth movement’s leaders. Demand is also rising for home dinners and family exchange.

A&K spokeswomen Frangelica Flook added that these experiences are far from the sanitised version of what a hotel doorman could tell you… A&K clients want a real travel story to tell.”

Though some travellers will be put off by reports of desperate vendors aggressively touting visitors with their wares, and of robberies and sectarian violence, most recognise that no tourists were harmed or targeted during the uprising.

Indeed, says Badr, “You will be able to meet with a nation, touch their heart and soul, witness history in the making. Every single person who’s been visiting with us this month and last has had a tremendous experience – and they not only got a better room, but were able to enjoy a museum with 500 people versus 50,000 people, were able to have the pyramids to themselves rather than sharing them with a million other people.”

I asked Badr to recommend his ultimate Egypt itinerary for visiting business traveller and their families. “The country is a nice rich menu: Fly to Cairo, stay at Mena House Oberoi or the Four Seasons, do the pyramids, the museum, the mosques and bazaar on the second day, have an evening on a Nile boat or beautiful local restaurant. If you have more time to spare, add on a three-night cruise, very informative, mind-changing. Another night can be had at Alexandria, followed by another couple at the Four Seasons Resort Sharm El Sheikh.*

Many prospective travellers might want to wait for the newly discovered Sphinx-lined Kabash path to open, which connects the Karnak temple in ancient Thebes to the Luxor Temple. The ancient procession route, long buried by desert sands and more recently urban sprawl, will be the longest walkway of antiquities in history. The site was due open in February this year; Badr believes that it will now do so by the end of 2011.

Reuters’ year-old recommended itinerary to Cairo can be read here.

* A seven-night Abercrombie & Kent holiday in Egypt, comprising four-nights in Cairo and a three-night cruise, inclusive of international flights, transfers and a number of special upgrades, is currently available from GBP 1,995

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