Nile File: What Is Happening in Egypt Tourism As the Revolution Continues

by Chris on October 1, 2011

Dispatch from Egypt: What is happening with tourism, post-revolution

The Sphinx, Giza, Egypt

I’ve been in Egypt since Sept. 26, hanging out at the Mena House in Giza until I join a Uniworld Splendors of Egypt tour that I’m covering for Cruise Critic. It’s a very posh way to spend a few days, so I’ve been removed from the typical day-to-day life of the Egyptians, many of whom are personally hurting since the Jan. 25 revolution.

Mena House

View down my hallway at Mena House. I didn't see a single other guest in my wing for my 4-night stay

Tourism is Egypt’s second largest income source, and it’s dropped dramatically since the revolution. At the Mena House, occupancy stands at 30 percent, and several of the hotel’s restaurants and nightclubs are temporarily closed. Traditionally, western tourists visit Egypt between October and April, with a concentration at Christmas and New Year. In the summer, tourists from other Arab countries come; this year, the Arab Spring and unrest cut travel way down, people told me.

Mena House, Palace rooms

Rock-star view of the Pyramids from my Mena House suite

As a result, my time in the hotels reminds me of Mexico after the swine flu scare. From a tourist viewpoint, it’s a mixed bag: you get fantastic service, continual upgrades (I had a four room suite at Mena House, and a Nile River view at the Four Seasons) and reduced prices. Yet quiet hotels and empty restaurants feel a bit eerie, plus I felt continually guilty and tipped more to compensate (sorry, Don).

Scene from a Cairo street

The Egyptian Gazette – the Middle East’s oldest English language daily – came to my room every day. There, I read about many of the problems that have affected Cairo since the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) took control after President Hosni Mubarak was forced out. Cairo’s traffic, already deadly, has gotten worse as the police pulled out, as has theft and crime. Strikes and protests over jobs and wages have diminished public services, forcing people to use illegal (and expensive) private transportation.

Despite these issues, the Egyptians I met say they are optimistic. From the few people I talked to, they are eager to experience a society under a Western-style democracy, led by politicians elected by the people with term limits – instead of the president-for-life style leaders they’ve had in the past.  “Now we know what freedom is,” my guide Abdo El-Lahamy said. “Before it was just a word.”

Tahrir Square, Cairo

I had hired Abdo as my guide for two days, both to see the sights and run some errands. I had debated doing the trip in a closer-to-the-ground manner, but decided that since I was alone (and exhausted after back-to-back press trips), I wanted someone to make things easier. He turned out to be a great choice for me, as he not only spoke good English and knew the ancient sites such as Saqqara, Dashur and Memphis, he was politically active and involved in the January revolution. His services cost $120 for two seven-hour days; I ended up paying him more (again, sorry, Don). If you’re coming to Egypt, he can be reached at abdo_eljoker@yahoo.com or eljoker2009@hotmail.com. I found him on TripAdvisor, where he has many positive reviews. He’s also active on social media, which gave us a common interest. “With Facebook and Twitter, we can say what we want,” he said. “It’s better. It’s the Facebook revolution!”

Man with flag during Tahrir Square protests, Cairo, Egypt

I went into Tahrir Square Friday to watch the preparations for the Sept. 30 protest, which had been billed in the newspaper as a million man march. The US Embassy had sent out an alert about the protest to those signed up for its STEP program, but Abdo assured me that we’d be fine in the morning before prayers let out.

Protest in Tahrir Square, Cairo

And we were, save for one vendor who wanted to cause trouble about my photos. A small crowd gathered around, but Abdo, who was in the square during the revolution, quickly diffused the situation. I received permission from organizers to walk around freely, and they even told the young touts selling jewelry to leave me alone. I saw my angry friend again on Saturday, and she waved.

Young couple in Al Azhar park, Cairo

Young couple in Al Azhar park

I had dressed for my day in Cairo carefully, wearing a maxi dress and carrying a scarf, which I put on my head when we entered the square. Most Egyptian women that I saw in Cairo were wearing loose full-body coverings and hajibs, although black niqab – where the entire face except the eyes are covered – were also common. Abdo told me that women’s clothing has been getting more conservative (between the 1920s and the 1970s, you rarely saw headscarves here).

Protest signs in Cairo

As we walked around, Abdo explained the Arabic signs. The protest was taking place because Egyptians don’t trust the Army to handle the upcoming November elections in a fair and uncorrupt manner, he said. One of the transitional leaders caused an outrage earlier in the week when he showed up in public wearing a suit; although he claimed he was going to a wedding, many Egyptians felt the clothing change signaled that he was gearing up for campaign mode.

Protesters gathering in Tahrir Square

Egyptians are also upset with the current state of emergency law imposed by SCAF. Such law should only be imposed by Parliament, which has not met, Abdo said. It also means that people can be arrested and put in jail without a hearing, and promotes censorship (since I’ve been here, the offices of Al-Jazeera have been raided twice). The law, first enacted in 1958, has been in effect almost non-stop since 1967, and it’s the main problem that protesters had with Mubarak’s government and now the Army.

Slogan T-shirts in Cairo

Discovering that I was American, one protestor chastised me for the recent decision by the US to boycott Palestine’s entry into the United Nations. This came up again, when I drank tea with Abdo and his cousin in Coptic Cairo. People in Egypt have been watching carefully how the US handles its relationships with other countries during the Arab Spring time of transition, and they asked me about all of its permeations: Why is the US still supporting Syria? Why is the Senate considering imposing conditions for its foreign aid? Does anyone in the US care about the killings in Bahrain? I didn’t have the heart to tell them that when I had turned on CNN that day, the main story was the Michael Jackson trial.

Worshippers at Amr Ibn el-Aas Mosque, Cairo, Egypt

Although Cairo is primarily Islamic, I didn’t experience any discrimination for my religion (which is considered Christian, even though I can’t remember the last time I went to church as anything other than a tourist. Egypt doesn’t recognize atheists, Abdo told me: “That’s between you and your God”). We visited Amr Ibn el-Aas Mosque, the oldest mosque in Africa, where one of imams greeted us personally, giving me several English booklets about Islam and allowing me to take photos.

Dressing for a Cairo mosque

At the mosque, I did have to don an unflattering overdress that covered my arms and head. There’s just no way that a blonde woman can be inconspicuous in Egypt; while in Coptic Cairo, two diminutive Arabic women wanted to take their picture with me. “Is it because I’m big?” I asked Abdo. “No, it’s because you are very blonde,” he replied.

Religions have co-existed in Cairo since the beginning of the city, Abdo told me. “All religions come from Egypt,” Abdo said, pointing to Moses’ upbringing and the Holy Family’s flight from Israel. Mainstream Egyptians worry about fundamentalists getting more power, he said. “Cairo is for everyone.”

Police at Tahrir Square

Tell that to the police. Today, Abdo drove me from Mena House to the Four Seasons at Nile Plaza in Cairo, where I’ll be meeting my cruising companions from Uniworld. We stopped back at Tahrir Square so I could pick up a duffel to house the fabric wall hangings I bought, and encountered packs of police lined up on the corners.

Police lined up for protest, Tahrir Square, Cairo, Egypt

Abdo seemed disgusted. “The people want to go back into the Square, but they won’t let them,” he said, referencing the sit ins that the revolutionaries have been threatening to hold. It wasn’t the only protest going on today; streets were blocked by members of the medical community, upset over their wages and hours.

Traffic jam in Cairo

“Are the cops paid well?” I asked Abdo. “No one is paid well,” he said. “Unless you are a businessman or take bribes.” Perhaps it’s the lack of pay that’s responsible for their ineffectiveness; we sat in traffic for nearly 40 minutes to go a few blocks to the hotel after police forced us to go down a street the wrong way. As the horns blew, a few men took matters into their own hands and started directing cars. “This is what we do now,” Abdo said. “The police, they are useless.”

Four Seasons Nile Plaza

My view from the Four Seasons Nile Plaza

Now once again ensconced in a 5-star bubble, I can hear the horns continue from my room, 17 floors above the chaotic streets. The tour I’ll be taking is a luxury one, and I wonder how my traveling companions will react to Cairo, even as I’m not quite sure how I feel about it. Tourists fearing problems should know that they easily can avoid them, even as the Egyptian Revolution continues to be a work in progress. “We will not stop until we have true freedom,” Abdo said. Judging by what I’ve seen so far, I believe him.

| Chris Gray Faust is a veteran journalist, travel expert, social media butterfly - and editrix of this site. Like what you read? Check out her writing, editing and social media services.

{ 11 comments… read them below or add one }

Angie Orth October 1, 2011 at 7:53 pm

This is so helpful! I’ll be there next week and this is probably the first really thorough explanation of the situation I’ve seen. Bookmarking!

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Kent @ No Vacation Required October 2, 2011 at 6:49 am

Fascinating. Thanks for such an illuminating look at what’s going on. Did you get to keep the overdress :)

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asedky October 2, 2011 at 8:05 am

Excellent piece. Very thorough. And the photos are very illuminating.
I wouldn’t wear the green full lengthed cover though. It makes you more conspicuous even in a mosque. I would suggest the full length skirt and a scarf. Much better.

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Chris October 2, 2011 at 10:32 am

I didn’t have a choice. I was wearing a full-length skirt and had a scarf, but they wanted my arms covered too. Believe me, if there was a way I could avoid wearing that thing, I would have!

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Italian Notes October 2, 2011 at 11:26 pm

I haven’t been to Egypt after the revolution, so thanks a lot for the update and the photos.

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Gene Bowker October 3, 2011 at 9:42 am

I think it would be a fascinating time to visit Egypt. Great story about what is happening there, loved the pictures.

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JoAnna October 4, 2011 at 7:27 am

What an interesting perspective. Honestly, I always feel a bit immune to the things going on around me when I travel, which I know is ignorant, so I appreciate the occasional reminder that what is happening in a place involves everyone there – even people who are just visiting.

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Donna Hull October 4, 2011 at 11:12 am

This is a fascinating time to visit Egypt. I just returned two weeks ago from a 7-day cultural tour with AuthentiCity Travel. We spent the entire time in Cairo and I felt safe. We stayed in the Safir Hotel in the Dokki section of Giza (suburb of Cairo). The area was safe enough for us to walk on our own. In fact, one night, four of us walked 30 minutes to the Flying Fish Restaurant for dinner. The most dangerous part of the night was crossing the street in Cairo traffic.

We had the opportunity to talk with locals who were encouraged (some more than others) about their future. They are especially happy to have the freedom to express themselves, which wasn’t available to them in the Mubarak era.

When we asked about religion, one of our guides put it this way, “We don’t ask a friend or colleague about their religion, it is rude to ask.” I came away with the impression that the Egyptian culture is relatively tolerant when it comes to different religions, although I am sure there are exceptions.

I can’t wait to read more about your trip, Chris.

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Cam October 5, 2011 at 9:25 pm

Insightful post. It’s interesting reading about your experience, as ours was quite a bit different in 2009. My how the times have changed in the Middle East

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Lisa December 8, 2011 at 2:41 am

Great blog – insightful and really points out the troubles of the Egyptian people post revolution – lack of tourism etc. I’ve been to Egypt twice now post revolution (June and September) as my fiancé is Egyptian and the press really make it seem that Egypt is not a safe place. When I was there with and without my fiancé I found Egypt safe and Egyptians very hospitable. Great time to visit if you want to see all the famous sights up close without the queues and people. Egypt needs tourism please go if you are able – just remember to be safe and be mindful of your safety as you should in any major city.

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Claire Walter July 25, 2012 at 5:23 am

I’m not sure how I missed this interesting post when you first put it up. Of course, I wonder how much more things have transitioned both for Egyptians and for visitors since you were there.

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