The Spirit of Egypt Delivers
By Susan McKee
The 21st century has arrived in this fabled land of sun and stones, but tourists don’t come to see the newest marvels. They want to see the sphinx, the temples, the tombs – and Egypt has ‘em in abundance.
Sure, there are the pyramids along the Nile River, but – check out the new library in Alexandria! Earnest camel touts in traditional desert garb patrol the key tourist sites, but trendy Cairenes in their European designer duds prefer zipping about town in luxury sports cars. Stop to watch a demonstration on how to make paper from a papyrus reed, and you’ll probably spot the latest model of cell phone in the craftsman’s pocket.
Most tours start in Cairo, because that’s where the international airport is located. After a few days to recover a bit from jet lag and hit the high spots, it’s off to the south of the country – called Upper Egypt. Abu Simbel, Aswan and Luxor are easily accessible by both air and Nile River boat. Ten days – and it’s back home, with all the high spots checked off the lifetime list.
If that’s all your client wants to do, a travel agent’s job is easy. Hundreds of inbound operators provide buses, step-on guide service, airplane reservations and river boats – in whatever language required. Individual travelers with specific requests require a bit more research, but this is a country of entrepreneurs who’ll design whatever itinerary your customer desires.
That said, because it’s a country of entrepreneurs, expect the usual press to visit perfume, papyrus and carpet shops where the guides have “previous arrangements.” Shopping is part of the fun of travel, but remind clients that prices aren’t exactly bargains in tourist locations.
Even along a shopping street such as Khan El Khalili Old Market, prices are geared for tourists rather than locals and things aren’t always what they seem. Saffron, for example, should be stamens from Crocus Sativus, but if on closer examination (take a sniff) it looks like red-dyed straw, keep looking.
Cairo’s highlights (of course) the Pyramids of Giza, and the sphinx, but there’s also the Museum of Egyptian Antiquities, the Coptic Quarter, Memphis and Saqqara (for starters).
The Museum of Egyptian Antiquities is so crammed with artifacts that even the staff sometimes loses track of what ancient relic is where. According to gossip, it’d take more than nine months to see it all – even if one allotted just a minute for each item on display. Although no cameras are allowed, you’ll see families taking pictures of each other with their cell phones when the guards’ backs are turned.
A new museum is under construction, but until it’s finished, visitors will wander the dimly-lit corridors where there’s a surprise around every corner. Don’t miss (for an extra charge) visiting the Mummy Room – the famous ones are there.
The Copts are the indigenous Christians of Egypt. Having survived the Muslim onslaught, they’re still hunkered down in an area on the southern side of Cairo. Several churches (especially the Church of St. George) are open for visitors, who also might enjoy the Coptic Museum. Also located in the Coptic Quarter is the Ben Ezra Jewish Synagogue, originally built in the ninth century on the remains of a Coptic church.
Sometimes called Maimonides Synagogue because the renowned medieval physician, philosopher, authority on religious law worshipped there, its 11th century carved wooden doors are now found in the Israel Museum in Jerusalem. Legend has it that Moses was found in the bulrushes growing there when the Nile River flowed past the site, but it’s famous for a more recent find. In an 1890s renovation, a cache of ancient documents was found hidden in its geniza or store room.
The Pyramids at Giza are the iconic image of Egypt. Almost impossibly ancient, the three monumental structures built for pharaohs Cheops (Khufu), Chephren (Khafre) and Mycerinus (Menkaure) have drawn visitors for centuries. Although somewhat isolated from the city, they’re not alone. Dozens of tourist police, hundreds of touts and thousands of tourists surround them every hour of the day.
Not far away is the sphinx, the monumental structure with the head of a human and the body of a lion facing the rising sun. Fenced off for seemingly perpetual reconstruction, it’s nonetheless picturesque.
Memphis (about 12 miles south of Cairo) was founded around 3100 BCE by Menes, the pharaoh who united Upper and Lower Egypt. Destroyed centuries ago, today the site is an open-air museum with delightful gardens. Saqqara served as a necropolis for Memphis. The distinctive Step Pyramid of Djoser (Netjerikhet) is found here.
Cairo is replete with five-star hotels. Be sure to check current charges for buffet breakfasts and internet access when quoting daily rates to your clients: the “essential extras” mount up fast.
Just a 2-1/2 to three-hour train ride northwest of Cairo is the even-older city of Alexandria. Most Americans have heard of the place, founded by Alexander the Great about 334 BCE. Novelist Lawrence Durrell’s “Alexandria Quartet” was set here. With about four million people, it’s the second largest city in Egypt (Cairo’s population clocks in at more than eight million).
It’s here on the western edge of the Nile Delta where the river meets the Mediterranean that the largest library in the world was assembled, only to burn down during the Roman era (the cause is in dispute, but the timing is around 50 BCE).
Six years ago, a new Bibliotheca Alexandrina opened near the site of the old. Designed by Snøhetta, a Norwegian architectural firm, it includes space for more than eight million books – but it’s also the site of the only external backup for the Internet Archive. A tour includes the library’s temporary and permanent museum collections. For information on tours of the Bibliotheca Alexandrina, firstname.lastname@example.org
Of course, there are antiquities to see in Alexandria, too. The high point (quite literally) is the Pompeii Column, some 100 feet of Aswan pink granite. Nearby are the Kom al-Shuqafa Catacombs, dating from the first and second centuries CE. Out on the far end of the corniche, the Qaitbay Fort (built in 1480) stands on the site of the fabled Alexandria lighthouse.
Two classic (and classy) hotels welcome guests in downtown Alexandria, just a block from the Mediterranean: the Sofitel Cecil Alexandria (built in 1929) and Paradise Inn’s Le Metropole (opened in 1902). Both are right on the main square, Saad Zaghloul, and both are four-star properties.
World War II buffs may want to journey about 70 miles further west to El Alamein, where both a military museum and cemeteries memorialize the site of the 1942 battle when British troops defeated the Germans.
A boat trip on the Nile is de rigueur for visitors. The pace is slow and the vistas range from ancient temples to contemporary farmers. Numerous companies offer all level of cruising amenities and escorted (or not) shore visits. A faster way to get between Cairo and Upper Egypt is by plane. Frequent service on Egyptair links Abu Simbel, Aswan and Luxor.
Matching Clients with the Destination
Traveling in Egypt is at once familiar and strange – it’s not a destination for those making their first trip outside the U.S. For starters: don’t drink the water and wash your hands frequently. Dress modestly (no sleeveless tops or shorts); don’t forget a hat and sunscreen.
As is true in many destinations throughout the world, this is a culture lubricated by baksheesh – tips. You can either play dumb or carry a wad of 1 pound notes (about 18 cents) to hand out lavishly. Note: Coins are worth so little in Egypt that they’re more of an historical artifact than a currency.
Assume that nothing is free. You want to ride that camel? Of course, there’s a charge. But there’s also a request for payment for taking someone’s photograph or helping you lift your suitcase onto the baggage-screening belt at the airport, so forewarn clients to be firm but not rude.
The upside of this system is that it’s likely that a little baksheesh will help you jump the queue at a tourist attraction or get the right directions when you’ve made the wrong turn, so surrender to the culture at hand.
EgyptAir’s daily service to New York JFK, was the inaugural flight that took off from Cairo’s new Terminal 3 to mark a new era in civil aviation history in Egypt on April 27. The 210 passengers on the flight were welcomed by top figures of the Ministry of Civil Aviation and its subsidiaries, as well as top executives from EgyptAir. The new terminal is equipped with state-of-the-art services for luggage handling, and very spacious waiting areas in front of the gates with all facilities. In addition, the boarding of the plane is done through bridges. The terminal serves both domestic and international traffic, which offers more convenience for tourists. The new Terminal has been allocated only for EgyptAir and Star Alliance Members. In a later stage, EgyptAir will transfer the domestic flights to the new terminal, then the rest of EgyptAir flights.
On June 2, 2009, Egypt Air will re-launch its service from Cairo to Dar es Salaam, making it easier for visitors to combine two world class destinations very popular with American travelers, Tanzania and Egypt. A Star Alliance member, Egypt Air flights departs four times a week from New York City to Dar es Salaam, with a stopover in Cairo on the return from Tanzania. Visit www.egyptair.com
For train travel, contact Egyptian Rail Roads www.egyptrail.gov.eg/docs/index.html
For more information, contact the Egyptian Tourist Authority, 212-332-2570; E-mail email@example.com; www.egypt travel.com
Exclusive Interview with Sayed M. Khalifa, Consul-Director U.S., Egyptian Tourist Authority
Egypt’s Great Fortune
Egypt is now preparing for center stage when President Obama will deliver a speech in Cairo this month to encourage this powerful ally in the Middle East to take its rightful position as a leader in the region. After being buffeted by the Bush Administration for the past eight years, the country is exuberant on this occasion. Its tourism officials are also thrilled because politics always has a direct impact on tourism.
While other countries are mitigating the damage of a terrible downturn in visitor arrivals, Egypt is smacking its lips at the record-breaking visitor arrivals the country has been experiencing in the last two years – 12.8 million worldwide, 65% of which originates in Europe and 319,000 marks the highest number of visitors from the U.S. According to Sayed M. Khalifa, Consul-Director U.S. and Latin America of the Egyptian Tourist Authority (ETA), Egypt has already seen a 20% leap in worldwide arrivals this quarter over the same quarter in 2008; and a small but significant four percent rise from the U.S. market. Khalifa expressed some surprise but overall, says this success was a long time in coming.
JF: To what do you credit this unprecedented success?
ETA: We attribute it to four major factors: Value for money vs. the Euro zone; the exchange rate for the Egyptian pound is currently about 5.5: U.S. $1; Product is very attractive; Culturally, it cannot be beat from the Pyramids to Aswan; and finally the diversity of product. On this last point we have been working for the past 20 years developing beyond the obvious cultural assets we have to include things like adventure and desert tourism, religious tourism, the MICE market (incentives and meetings), golf (we now have 17 tournament-ready courses), and there are diving opportunities year round in the Gulf of Aqaba on the Red Sea at Sharm El-Sheikh. Wellness facilities are beginning to be developed as well in Aswan, along the Red Sea and the New Valley.
JF: Any noteworthy travel patterns?
ETA: Primarily that seasonality is fast disappearing – Egypt is becoming a year round destination although it is quite hot in August.
JF: Are there any new developments on the religious tourism front?
ETA: The Route of the Holy Family is of particular interest to Christian travelers as Jesus’ family sought refuge from King Herod’s reign of persecution and lived in Egypt for four years. We have tracked and developed this particular program, and have repaved the route as part of a policy to revive and give prominence to religious landmarks such as this one. Although there are other routes, this includes about 20 to 25 destinations along their route and it resonates with religious travelers.
JF: Egypt is not normally known as a golf destination, is it?
ETA: That may be so, but we see this as a link to the Incentive or MICE market. In just 10 years, Egypt has gone from its original three standard-bearers to almost 20 world- class golf courses – with many more under construction or planned. The courses are spread right across the country: from the historic heart of Cairo, and Cleopatra’s home city, Alexandria to a pristine stretch of the Mediterranean coast; or clients can send a drive soaring towards the Luxor mountains where the pharaohs of ancient Egypt were buried; and sink putts on Red Sea Riviera courses from the Sinai Peninsula to the northern and western Red Sea coasts.
JF: Is there a cap on the number of ships that are allowed to cruise the Nile, usually a part of everyone’s first trip to Egypt?
ETA: There is a limit to the number of cruise ships and we had to stop issuing permits beyond 300 ships. However at the entrance to Lake Nasser we do limit the arrival to six to eight ships a day as that is also the source of drinking water.
We are in the process of developing more centers and berthing facilities along the Nile to reduce the risks of disembarking and crossing the many ships that are often berthing along many of the sightseeing stops.
JF: What about big-ship cruising?
ETA: For now, about half a dozen big-name lines (Costa, Crystal, Cunard, MSC, Norwegian, Oceania, Princess, Radisson Seven Seas, Royal Caribbean, Seaborn, Silversea) call at ports such as Port Said and Alexandria. This year, we participated in trade shows like SeaTrade with the Port Authority of Port Said to let cruise liners know we have facilities and itineraries.
JF: Are there emerging destinations agents may be unfamiliar with?
ETA: Western Egypt, while not usually visited by first-timers, is lined with wonderful oases and the Valley of the Golden Mummies with tombs that date back to Roman times. A Master Plan is in place to develop the Red Sea coastal areas such as Marsa Alam.
JF: Has air access improved?
ETA: EgyptAir schedules daily nonstop flights to Cairo and Delta operates five weekly flights; all the European carriers have easy connections for Cairo; flying time from New York is about 10 and a half hours.
JF: What is the best way for agents to get to know Egypt?
ETA: Roadshows are scheduled throughout the year and a new series will be coming up in October stopping in New York, Boston and Los Angeles.
Our website also has an E-learning program that will be launched by the end of this month. It involves three chapters before one becomes an Egypt Specialist. We highly recommend that travelers, especially first-timers, that they use travel agents to make their arrangements.