Time to visit Egypt is NOW

6 Mar

With just few visitors, sightseeing is real pleasure

“A tourist!” yelled a middle-aged vendor at an Aswan market as  he ran to greet me. Walking through the market, I felt like Noah’s dove coming back to the Ark with an olive branch. I was a good news messenger, a sign that tourists are starting to return to Egypt.

“I haven’t had a tourist in my shop for a month,” he told me. ”And I have five people to feed.”

Egyptians tent to have big families. Seven, eight children is a normal.  This vendor had four daughters. Happy as he was with his girls, he hoped that he would add four boys to his family.

Tourism accounts for 13 per cent of Egypt’s GDP and employs over ten percent of the country’s population, according to World Travel and Tourism Council figures.

Many of Egyptians have second jobs in this sector. Sa’id works for a perfume company and at the same time as a licensed tourist guide. Ahmed is currently doing his military service, but having holidays he is selling Nubian handicrafts in his shop in Aswan.

“A salary of 500 Egyptian Pounds a month that you can earn in a company is not enough even to buy bread,” the vendor told me. “So people come from their work and have another job involving tourists. This allows them a decent living,” he said.

Tourist-less Egypt

Most of the foreign visitors left the country after the massive protests, leading to the resignation of President Husni Mubarak, had started in January. The British Foreign Office advised against “all but essential travel” to Egypt and some travel agencies took Egypt off offer.

In many hotels, I’ve been staying in, I was the only foreigner. The least affected seems to have been the Red Sea coast. Still, my friend Hamada left his shop in Sharm el-Sheikh and took indefinite holidays because there was nobody to sell to.  The hotel occupancy rate in this resort town dropped to eight per cent from 70 percent in mid-January, The New York Times on 23 February quoted head of the Egyptian Tourism Chamber of Commerce Ahmed al-Nahas as saying.

Luxor, in the Upper Egypt, is usually crammed with tourists hungry for ancient history sight-seeing. However, this time, I was completely alone in some of the tombs of pharaohs.

A ride on a horse-pulled carriage from the centre of Luxor to the Karnak temple costs 20-25 Egyptian pounds, after a bit of bargaining, the Rough Guide to Egypt says. I was offered the ride for five pounds. “There are no tourists here,” said Ahmed, the owner of the carriage. Despite the negative impact on his business, he seemed to be happy that the revolution took place. He showed me where houses were demolished to clear the way for excavation of the Avenue of Sphinx that once linked Luxor temple with Karnak. The money that the owners got as compensation was insufficient to buy a new property. As the revolution came, the people started to lay bricks where their houses used to be, until the local government paid them more. This wouldn’t have been possible during the time before the revolution. Mubarak’s police would have severely punished any such disobedience. “We were being humiliated before. Now we have our dignity back,” concluded Ahmed.

Tourists, come back!

Almost two weeks after the Foreign Office lifted its warning against the travel to Egypt, tourists are still wary. A friend wrote me in an email when she learnt I’m in the country: “Are you crazy?! Aren’t you watching the news?! Come home right now!”

Egyptians I’ve spoken to asked me to go back to Europe and tell people that Egypt is a safe place to visit. “Look, we have been without the police for more than a month and nothing has happened. No Christians have been killed as many predicted,” the already mentioned vendor said.

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