Talk Like An Egyptian – Will Tourism To Egypt Ever Change?
Written by Jaillan Yehia
I have at least 8 stories to write by Monday about my recent travels, including some blog posts on my 2017 trip to Egypt.
So, like any good procrastinator I naturally sat down at my desk today to do an entirely unrelated task.
I stumbled on a piece I wrote for the travel industry magazine Travel Trade Gazette 4 years ago about selling a tricky destination like Egypt.
Like any good half-Egyptian girl, I’m keen to put off my pressing deadlines until bokra (tomorrow) so I read this old article all the way through.
I then realise that my procrastination may just have saved me some time; because other than the Egyptian pound being worth half of what it was in 2013 (representing good value for holidaymakers even back then) I may as well have written this piece today.
Have a read and see why I think tourism to Egypt in 2017 is the same as it always was, and probably always will be – meaning if you want to visit, you might as well just do it…
Why I THINK TOURISM TO EGYPT WON’T CHANGE
I’ve got a serious hat addiction. For me, life in the travel industry leads to a never-ending repertoire of different hats, both literally and metaphorically.
On the literal side I’m never without a beanie, a beret or a panama depending on what the weather calls for in the destination I’m in – but on the metaphorical side I don writing, editing, blogging and holiday-planning hats depending on the day.
I also have one unusual specialism: post-traumatic travel expert.
I don’t mean trauma counselling, or anything that useful. From holidaying in Tobago during Hurricane Ivan (where I found the road to my hotel blocked by a washed-up boat presciently named No Way Through) to seeing Sri Lanka’s sights virtually solo a week after the civil war ended, I’ve been a pioneering passenger on more than a few occasions.
I like going to places others wouldn’t touch with a proverbial barge pole.
With my holiday to Peninsula Malaysia just days after the tsunami, and on taking the first operational flight to Iceland after that unpronounceable volcano’s eruption eased off, I discovered first-hand that in all cases there was no need to buy into the scaremongering.
This led to a fascination with travellers’ media-fed perceptions of tricky destinations, which often contradict what 99% of us experience when we visit areas of political instability, economic crises, religious turmoil or natural disasters – that in tourist areas, life usually goes on regardless.
In fact your hosts are universally more welcoming and grateful for your custom and your good faith, and I’ve always found this to be the case in Egypt, where the struggle to attract tourists seems to be omnipresent.
For Joe Public there’s always price point at which, in the face of a stonkingly good deal, worries are cast aside. It would be rude not to snap up a week’s five-star all-inclusive for £399, we reason.
So, I find myself reminiscing about my visit to post-revolutionary Egypt in 2013. Back then I was surprised to find a subdued Sharm El Sheik and a hauntingly tourist-free Cairo, where the guarded and burned-out shell of Mubarak’s party HQ loomed over my only sight of Westerners in the entire city – at the freshly-looted Egyptian museum.
I had been in the capital on a day trip from a week’s all-inclusive in the Red Sea resort and decided to leave the world class snorkelling behind to see my family – and “the real Egypt” – first hand at this historic time.
Fast forward to Egypt 2017 – a trip where I re-visited Sharm and Cairo and found the only thing different today is Sharm has the strong military presence and is hauntingly free of tourists, while Cairo is thriving – yet in both places being a tourist feels far easier than it should, and there are very few others competing to see the sights.
The general public feels apprehensive to visit Egypt in 2017 as they did in 2013, yet that apprehension is largely misplaced.
All the cops in the donut shops?
Having made my pilgrimage to the 2013 Tahrir Square I had headed to Heliopolis – an upmarket Cairo suburb which is home to City Stars, Cairo’s biggest shopping mall.
With over 600 retail outlets there are some donut shops, sure, as well as a Starbucks and frozen yoghurt outposts, but I didn’t see any cops – just normal law-abiding Egyptian middle classes going about their typically consumerist business.
It’s the same story come evening as I was turned away from the trendiest bar in town, Cafe Supreme in Korba not because it was closed, but because I didn’t have a reservation and it was already packed with Cairo’s cool crowd.
By 2017 the middle classes in Cairo may be moving away from Heliopolis to even swankier suburbs, but it remains the place for discerning tourists to be based if they want to see the real Cairo, do some shopping and avoid the downtown area.
Foreign types with their hookah pipes
I had then walked like a true Egyptian (which basically means expertly dodging the onslaught of Friday night traffic) down to nA2nA2 a bar that wouldn’t look out of place in London’s Soho.
It serves spicy, fruity, sugary and creamy variations on shisha using fruit juice instead of water to cool the smoke for added flavour. Bubble tea eat your heart out.
In 2013 I settled in for a few hours of people-watching on the outdoor terrace, and the bill came to just £2 Sterling – spend 20 EGP in 2017 it will only cost you £1 due to the reduced value of the Egyptian Pound.
The party boys call the Kremlin
Value is one of the things which brings people to Egypt time and time again. Prices in Sharm had already gone down by around 40% after the revolution and occupancy rates were lower too.
Already those visiting Egypt were more likely to have been before, but the largest markets were the Russians and Brits.
Fast forward to Egypt 2017 – the Russians and British are still not allowing direct flights to Sharm, and it is the Ukrainians who are keeping Egypt going as a tourist destination.
But repeat business is still key: those who’ve seen for themselves that Egypt is safe come back time and time again meaning the number of regulars at resorts is exceptionally high. The hardest part is to convince first time visitors.
In 2017 as in 2013 the Old Market turns out to be my favourite part of Sharm El Sheikh. It’s got a fun network of shops and stalls selling everything from souvenirs to fresh fish, fruit and veg and has a free open-air nightly show with whirling dervishes, fire eaters and snake charmers.
On my first visit a classic, charming Egyptian salesman called Alaam good-naturedly cajoled me into buying a selection of items from his Aladdin’s cave of a stall.
On my revisit to Egypt in 2017 Alaam is not there, and many shops and restaurants in the Old Market have closed or are clearly struggling for custom, but it is still the authentic, original beating heart of Sharm.
Tourism to Egypt is the same in 2017 as it was on my previous visit 4 years ago; the Egyptian people are grateful and glad for your custom and able to charm you more than you can imagine with their smiles and hospitality. This is why I tell people who want to visit Egypt to simply go, and not wait for the perfect time, or for political change to occur.
I had chosen some bracelets Alaam had on display before I left his stall, but in typical Egyptian style he had refused to take any money for these. As well as learning a lesson in why travellers love to come back to Egypt, I realised this particular Egyptian had actually given me The Bangles.
The political situation in Egypt is of course subject to change. Despite the fact that most holidays to Egypt are trouble free tourists do need to show cultural awareness and caution particularly when leaving tourist areas and this article does not constitute travel advice.
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