An Overview of Egyptian Tourism
(Updated and Checked for Accuracy 09/24/2004)
by Jimmy Dunn
This is an exciting time in Egyptian tourism, with many positive changes occurring that make the experience more pleasurable, while at the same time, providing new and adventurous choices. It has also proven to be perhaps the safest period for Egyptian tourism since the early 20th Century. It is also an excellent time to visit Egypt because of the current exchange rates, which are highly favorable at this point in time. So if you have ever wanted to take that vacation of a lifetime to one of the most exotic locations on earth, now is the time.
There are probably a hundred reasons why people visit Egypt. These days, perhaps the bulk of tourists actually come from various European countries for an inexpensive beach vacation, quite often in large groups by chartered airlines. For them, it is simply the least expensive means of taking a warm, beach vacation in a nice resort along the Red Sea coast of Egypt or in the Sinai. Many of these vacations are arranged by large European operations that use mass tourism to arrange considerable hotel space at very inexpensive rates.
More lucrative to the Egyptians, and certainly a major source of tourism to Egypt, are the classical tourists, who come to Egypt specifically to visit the ancient monuments. Beach goers may also arrange classical tours as extensions of their holidays, but normal classical tourists will usually follow a very defined route, from Cairo along the Nile Valley down to Aswan, though they may also opt for various extensions, including a brief visit to one of the beaches.
Then, there are various types of specialty tours. Perhaps the most prominent type of specialty tour is religious oriented. Many of these may in fact be modified classical tours, with an emphasis on visiting various ancient churches, or an attempt to follow the route of the Holy Family, or the biblical Exodus. Some religious tours may more stringently visit various monasteries and churches, but most will make a stop or two at Egypt's most famous ancient monuments. Of course, religious tours are not limited to Christians. Many Muslims also come to Egypt in order to visit it's fabulous old Mosques and other sites sacred to Islam.
There are many other types of specialty tours to Egypt, many of which mix in some portion of a classical tour. For example, there are New Age thinkers who may come for "spiritual enlightenment", bird and other nature enthusiasts, and even those who come to relax, not on the beach, but in resorts along the Nile River. In fact, the latter has a long history, dating back to European royalty and others who came to Egypt to escape harsh winters at places such as the aptly named Winter Palace in Luxor.
More and more, businesspeople travel to Egypt, sometimes to attend conventions and conferences, to transact specific business, or simply passing through. Most all of these people also wish to experience a little of Egypt's ancient past, which is really one of the reasons that businesses, institutions and foundations opt for holding their events in Egypt.
Others come to Egypt to learn. They come to learn the Arabic language, they come to learn how to belly dance, or improve their belly dancing skills, they enroll in a school such as the American University of Cairo to learn Egyptology, or various other disciplines related to the Middle East or Africa.
Whatever the reason, tourists come to Egypt in droves, and they have been doing so far at least a hundred years, though Egyptian tourism predates that by thousands of years. This does obviously have an effect today, though perhaps the history of tourism in Egypt is worth a short examination. While there have been tourists to Egypt since ancient times, this probably has little effect on the modern tourist trade in Egypt, though I have often thought that their grand hospitality to visitors is a cultural trait caused by at least two and a half millenniums of dealing with tourists. However, modern tourism to Egypt probably can be nailed down to the opening of the Suez Canal, and the efforts of an individual named Thomas Cook. The Suez Canal brought a host of visitors and attention to Egypt, while Thomas Cook, an Englishman, made Egyptian travel much more convenient. Of course, the discoveries in the Tomb of Tutankhamun spurred early 20th century interest, and all of these influences caused much tourism to Egypt between the early 1900s and the First World War. Though Egypt hosted many foreigners during the war, mostly in the form of military personnel, one can say that they were not tourists as such, but after the war, tourism returned for a very brief period right up until the spontaneous combustion in the early 1950s that resulted in Egypt's independence. throughout this period, Egyptian tourism could very definitely be defined as a foreign effort, probably mostly benefiting foreigners.
It was not only the violence of the Egyptian revolution for independence that caused tourism to falter, but also a radical change in politics. Egypt had been, to a large extent, governed by western powers, so after the revolution, they looked to Russia for their alliances which, of course, did nothing for the tourism which was largely made up of western European, and even American tourists at that time. There were struggles and problems through this period with the diminished tourism trade, not the least of which were the wars with Israel up into the 1970's. Of course, now, for the first time in the modern era, Egyptians themselves took charge of their tourism trade, but there had to have obviously been a learning curve with this, just as there was with regards to many of Egypt's governmental and other foundations, as Egyptians took control of their own destiny.
As Sadat took the presidency of Egypt after the death of Nasser, there was an obvious effort to make a return back to the Western influence. He made peace with Israel, but unfortunately, in the process, made enemies of particularly the more radical Muslims. This not only culminated in his own assassination, but also a series of terrorist attacks meant to undermine the Egyptian government as well as Western influence. A growing number of such incidences finally resulted in what we will call the catastrophe at Luxor, when a number of tourists were gunned down at the Temple of Hatshepsut in 1997. All of these events held Egyptian tourism back right up until the new millennium.
But in 1997, the Egyptian government had had enough. The radical elements were not only holding back one of Egypt's most lucrative businesses, they had assassinated the former president, made attempts to kill the current president, and were obviously in every way one big thorn in the Great Sphinx's paw. Egypt therefore became one of the first and the loudest voices against terrorism. They not only imprisoned or deported every known radical in the country, they made sweeping reforms in education and other social programs which basically wiped from the face of Egypt every radical element.
They also became very, very serious about tourism, just as one might expect a bank to be very serious about protecting its vault. Since then, they have not had a single terrorist incident, nor any other self inflicted events that might hamper tourism. It should also be noted that Egypt is considered a very moderate Islamic country where the head of their faith has strictly denounced violence and terrorism. In fact, today, many sources list Egypt as one of the safest places to travel, given also the lack of violent crimes of any nature directed towards tourists over the past seven years. Sometimes, many tourists almost feel over protected by the government, but one thing is obvious. Today, the Egyptian government is dedicated and absolutely intent on keeping tourists, and therefore their tourist industry, safe. There success is shown by the lack of any tourist deaths, or for that matter injuries due to violence since 1997, a record that practically no American our European destination can match.
Having faltered and recovered, experienced and learned, the fledgling Egyptian owned tourism industry that grew out of the mid 20th century independence revolution is today becoming ever more sophisticated and savvy. In many respects, their efforts continued to be somewhat retarded by foreign tour organizers, who continued to supply the bulk of tourists to Egypt, even though it was the Egyptians who owned the hotels and operated the tours once the tourists arrived. To a large extent, the Egyptian tourism trade continued, and does continue to be subject to foreign tour operators demands.
But with the coming of the internet, Egypt's acceptance of that media, and the vast use of the internet for travel arrangements, things are rapidly changing. For example, not long ago, few Egyptian tour companies had much notion at all about marketing and public relations. That was mostly left up to the foreign operators. But now, having more direct contact with many of the tourists coming to Egypt, the tour companies are learning more about what their tourists want, and for that matter, what bothers them. Let there be no mistake that the internet has changed forever Egyptian tourism because now, the owners and operators of those companies are no longer just dealing with large foreign companies, but directly with the tourists.
I have a great deal of faith in the Egyptian people. After all, they established one of the earliest and greatest civilizations, and have, one way or the other, managed to remain as an entity through these many thousands of years to emerge as an independent and principal power in their region. The more I see Egyptian tour companies intermingling with their own customers, the more improvements I see in the system, including new innovations that could never have been accomplished through foreign travel operators alone. Within the last several years, we have seen innovations such as family hosted tours (through Delta Tours), vintage sailing tours (such as the Cleopatra Sailing Nile Cruises), and many new specialized tours created out of a new understanding between the Egyptian tour operators and the tourists themselves. Many of these innovations, we are proud to say, have come from our own AETBI members, some of the most savvy, as well as most substantial Egyptian tour operators. However, innovations are not the only aspects of Egyptian tourism that are changing. A few years ago, one had to put up with considerable hassles just to visit the Great Pyramids, for example, from various vendors and even scam artists trying to solicit fees on the streets leading up to the Giza Plateau. In fairness, this was not so much of a problem related to the Ministry of Tourism as it was the Ministry of Culture, which operates these sites.
However, since the elevation of Zahi Hawass, who we have considerable respect for on a number of accounts, the Plateau has largely been cleaned up, and we see this happening at other sites as well, making the experience a more enjoyable one for tourists. Dr. Hawass, who received much of his training in California, is the media savvy leader of the Egyptian Supreme Council of Antiquities, a department within the Ministry of Culture, and he is not only bringing changes to the way Egyptology is conducted in Egypt, but also to the monuments themselves. He is a welcome addition to the leadership ranks of the Ministry of Culture who appears to take tourism to heart more than any other SCA Chairman we have seen in recent years.
There are other changes as well. Only over the last few years, new golf courses have sprung up, new amusement parks have been built, new, modern malls and supermarkets with fixed prices have bloomed up, sometimes it seems, overnight. Though the ancient past is mixed everywhere, including traditional culture, there is also everywhere modern facilities.
At the same time, many things have not changed. The Egyptians remain a very hospitable people who truly seem to love sharing their glorious past with visitors. They are a warm people who, meeting a foreign visitor for the first time, still have a habit of inviting them home to dinner, which is usually made into a feast of sorts.
So as we head into the middle of the first decade of the 21st Century, we find an Egypt that is more than ever ready to accept modern western tourists, perhaps as never before. New, and sometimes very luxurious hotels are springing up everywhere to accommodate them, and younger, more savvy tour operators are planning wonderful and exciting ways to entertain and engage tourists. Egypt is a land of enchantment and mystery, and now is the best time ever to experience the Mother of the World.
Last Updated: June 14th, 2011