Africa / The Travel Detective Exclusive
Perhaps the most dramatic example of the drop-off in travel and tourism in Egypt can be found at Saqqara, which is about 25 miles outside of Cairo.
Historic Egyptian Sites
The ancient burial ground of Saqqara is the final resting place of numerous Egyptian kings. It’s also home to the Step Pyramid, which is the oldest pyramid on the planet.
Zahi Hawass is one of the world’s premiere Egyptologists, and is an expert on Saqqara. While meeting with Peter Greenberg at the base of the Step Pyramid, he notes that it was being restored. “I left my job in July 2011, he said. “That is the time that all the restoration work was completely stopped.”
When the Arab Spring demonstrations swept through Egypt in early 2011, and scenes of violence popped up on our screens back home, one of the first casualties was a steep drop-off in tourism. Egypt has been reeling from the blow ever since.
“We are suffering a lot,” says Hawass. “Not only the economy, but the antiquities. Monuments are deteriorating. Treasures are going to be gone. History will be finished if tourists will not come to Egypt, because when they come and they [buy] tickets, we can restore. This pyramid, that’s closed since four years now, no restoration, because there are no tourists.
What about those travelers who do make the trip to Egypt? Well, they’re in for a special treat.
I always tell people that the best time to go anywhere is during the off-season. Right now, all of Egypt is in the off-season.
“It is,” agrees Hawass. “And you know what I tell people also? If you heard of trouble in Egypt, go next day, because there is more security. And now, there is no one in the sites, it’s not crowded, they can go to the Great Pyramid alone. I always say to the people everywhere: this monument does not belong to Egypt only. It belongs to everyone all over the world. And this why we need the tourists to come back, then we can restore the pyramids.”
While tourism in Egypt has started to improve, many sites are still relatively empty, including the ancient city of Luxor, which is also known as the world’s greatest open-air museum.
The visitor numbers throughout Egypt are staggeringly low. On a typical day a couple of years ago, at a place like the Temple at Karnak, 10,000 people might have come to see it. On a typical day now, it might be just 300.
Nile River Cruises
There’s an eerie calm you can feel when you’re strolling near those towering statues without all the crowds. That same quiet can be felt alongside the banks of the Nile River.
Of the 300 boats that normally operate on the Nile, only 30 are currently working. It’s bad news for the Egyptian economy, but great news if you want to visit. Timing, as they say, is everything.
Cruises on the Nile River go back millennia. Remember Cleopatra? Today, you can take the same trip she did—on board upscale riverboats.
John Boulding is on a mission to revitalize his Nile River Cruise Line. Four years ago, they were doing 100,000 bed-nights a year. But those days are long gone.
“I think there’ll be a relatively quick resurgence,” says Boulding. “I’m very confident that Egypt is ready for it. They’re very, very proud and tourism is such a key part of their world and their economy, they really do come together and want, as a nation, to overcome this.”
Just like nearly everyone else we spoke with, Boulding believes this is a golden moment for anyone who wants to visit Egypt. “When you look back to the way we as kids were taught at school, Egypt was that magical destination, that magical place of pharaohs and tombs and gold, and so to come here is a lifelong ambition for many people, and now is the time to do it, really.”
If you head down to the Cairo street markets, you can find travelers who have started to take up that call.
“We decided to come to Egypt because we have always wanted to visit the pyramids and all the monuments that they have here,” said Miguel Martinez, who was visiting from Spain with his wife Anna. “Actually we were pretty worried because we tried to come three years ago, but then the Arab Spring started, and we’ve been thinking for a few months if it was a good time to come. We decided that now it’s pretty calm, so let’s go. It’s been really really good. A really great experience.”
“I would absolutely encourage people to visit,” he said. “I think it’s pretty safe, there is a lot of security, a lot of guards for tourists, it’s a really safe place.”
When you factor in the current strength of the U.S. Dollar, a trip to Egypt starts to make even more sense.
Egypt is a country that lives or dies by tourism numbers. So consider these figures: In 2010, 14.5 million people visited Egypt. By 2014, that number dropped to about 10 million. So what does that mean for you? It’s a buyer’s market.
If you’re looking for a deal, you’ve come to the right place. Muhammad Abdullah, a market vendor in Cairo, said he is now selling items for half the price he previously charged. He stated that a mirror he sold for 100 pounds would now sell for 30 pounds, because far less travelers were coming.
As for Tahrir Square, things are back to normal. The demonstrators are gone, and the country is back to business as usual.
For more exclusive clips from season two of The Travel Detective, check out:
- Baha Mar: Behind the Scenes of a Mega Resort in the Making
- The Truth About Airline Ticket Change Fees
- The Invisibles: The People You Don’t See in the Travel Industry
By Peter Greenberg for PeterGreenberg.com