WTF Happened to Egypt’s Tourism Industry?!

For me, one of the greatest joys of traveling is the opportunity to expose yourself to diverse cultures and languages, to see how other people live, and to distance yourself from everything familiar and comfortable. It is for those very reasons that places such as the United Kingdom and the United States of America do not naturally draw me.

It is also for those very reasons that without a shred of doubt, I can say that the crown of my travels in 2017 – if not ever – goes to Egypt.

Many things amazed me during my three weeks spent in the capital of Cairo. There were the pyramids, the landscape, the way of life… but perhaps what amazed me most was that there was hardly a (western) tourist in sight.

Why was this? I just couldn’t wrap my head around it. Here is a country with such rich history that places like Paris pale in comparison. Here is a country where you can easily budget for NZD$15 a day. Why am I – a white, western tourist – such an anomaly?

Cue research. Statistics show that Egypt’s tourism plunged from 11 million in 2010, to 9.3 million in 2015, and then to 5.3 million in 2016. I’m not ignorant; I’m fully aware that Egypt hasn’t escaped disaster over the last few years. This is understandably enough to deter anyone from regarding it as a tourist hotspot. To cite personal experience, I myself have rejected flights with Malaysian Airlines after the events of 2014.

Despite being located in North Africa, Egypt is also a Middle Eastern state, and to hold that label comes with certain connotations for us western folk. I’m not saying that these associations are completely false, but neither am I saying that they should serve as well-grounded rationale to veto the Gift of the Nile. For a long time, Egyptian politics have been anything but stable. We can track how statistics nosedive following the 2011 revolution, whereby autocrat Hosni Mubarak was overthrown. This political uncertainty kept tourists at bay.

“The low number of inbound tourists has affected the economy, which looks to the sector as a crucial source of hard currency.”

Quartz

The 2011 Revolution; photograph courtesy of the Atlantic

Further events have dissuaded the hordes. In October 2015, a Russian passenger plane was brought down on Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula, resulting in 224 fatalities. In the wake of the tragedy, Russia – a major source of tourists – cancelled all air links with Egypt, and the United Kingdom suspended flights to Sharm el-Sheikh (the Egyptian resort from where the flight had departed). It is estimated that this decision occasioned a loss of 900,000 British travellers.

In January 2016, two German tourists were stabbed to death in Hurghada, and in December that same year, ISIS killed 27 worshippers at a Coptic church. Just two months ago, an attack on a Sufi mosque claimed over 300 lives… I’m probably not supporting my cause here, am I?

Let’s take a look at the UK government’s foreign travel advice for Egypt. Under terrorism, the government warns, “Terrorists are very likely to try to carry out attacks in Egypt… you should avoid crowded places and gatherings… in North Sinai, there are frequent, almost daily reports of terrorist attacks… foreigners have been targeted.” It’s not exactly the most reassuring news for prospective travellers. There is also a lovely little segment on how the government will not pay a ransom to free British citizens in the instance of kidnapping, but for the sake of encouraging people to visit Egypt, I’m going to leave that bit out.

However, the article does continue with, “The authorities in Egypt maintain a significant security presence across the country, including armed security officers stationed at important sites, critical infrastructure, and road checkpoints… extra measures are in place at tourist sites… (and) the Egyptian government’s counter-terrorism campaign has resulted in significant reduction in the number of terrorist attacks on the Egyptian mainland since January 2015.” That’s a little better.

There is a light amongst all of the darkness; in the first half of 2017, Egypt’s tourism rose by 170% to reach 4.3 million. This has been attributed to how Egypt has upped the ante when it comes to security and other incentives for travel. That number doesn’t even come close to the peak of Egypt’s tourism heyday – and it’s not to say the industry isn’t still reeling – though it illustrates how the country is making a slow but steady comeback.

“… we must move away from a ‘green-light’ mentality on travel advisories, and government and travel companies must devise a methodology to inform consumers as to all risks, actual or potential.”

The Independent

My advice to you? Travel to Egypt. The threats certainly exist, but if you take the time to educate yourself on how to best navigate things, you will be greatly rewarded. With a non-existent tourist population, you will probably find you have the sights all to yourself. Al Jazeera described visiting the pyramids as “… like walking on the moon… deserted, forlorn and uninhabited”. Don’t believe them? Just take a look at my experience below…

If you consult terrorism statistics for London, you will observe that there have been five separate incidents in the last twelve months alone. With today’s political landscape, it’s unfeasible to be thinking of places as having safety guaranteed. Nothing is sure in this world.

Did I feel safe in Cairo? Yes. Aside from some minor harassment – which you can read about here – I did not for one moment feel that my protection was under threat. I am not encouraging that foreigners should take their safety for granted. In other words,  don’t be stupid. Use common sense and exercise caution. Dress appropriately for the culture and understand that you have a responsibility to both yourself and others to behave respectfully. But the fundamentals aside, embrace the incredible opportunity that is Egypt.

I’ll see you there.

Need some more convincing for why you should travel to Egypt? Check out the following blog posts…

And last but not least, find inspiration in Hamsa Mansour: The Egyptian Cyclist Showing How It’s Done

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Face-Off: Couchsurfing vs. Airbnb

My first couchsurfing experience was in Madrid. 12,350 miles from home, I hopped off the plane, caught the metro to a train station in the middle of the suburbs, and waited without a phone for a stranger who was supposed to come and pick me up. Probably not what my mother wants to hear, but nevertheless, it was the case.

Photograph courtesy of Couchsurfing

It was only in January of this year that I finally ventured onto the Airbnb scene. My boyfriend and I were celebrating New Years with a road trip around the North Island of New Zealand, and we wanted somewhere to stay in Auckland – the capital – that was homely and central yet met the demands of our budget.

Photograph courtesy of Airbnb

Both of these experiences were great. I couldn’t have asked for anything better. But I can also sympathise if you’re an Airbnb and Couchsurfing virgin and have no idea where to start when it comes to accommodation. I procrastinated using Airbnb for a long time simply because I didn’t really understand how it worked, and Couchsurfing was a repellent to my social anxiety. But fear not, because I am about to walk you through everything you need to know about these two online platforms so that you can tailor future travel to your individual needs.

Let’s start with the basics.

What the hell are Airbnb and Couchsurfing?!

An Airbnb is kind of like a budget hotel. As an online hospitality service, you make an account and then browse the thousands of listings available from all corners of the globe. You can either pay for a shared room, private room or an entire home, and compared to a hotel, let’s just say your bank account is going to be thanking you.

If Airbnb is like a budget hotel, then Couchsurfing is like a budget Airbnb. The good news? You don’t have to pay a dime. The bad news? Yeah… you’re most likely going to be roughing it. With couchsurfing, you set up an online profile and reach out to hosts in your chosen area. There is no formal process to it; all you need is for someone to agree to let you crash for a few nights, and voilà! Your accommodation is sorted.

I’m going to be rating these two services on price, comfort, reliability, sociality, locality and safety. Let’s get down to it 👊

Like I said in the introduction before, the major difference between these two services is that Airbnb charges and Couchsurfing doesn’t. Assuming that you are traveling on a budget, it’s pretty clear who prevails here.

For some, this difference is the deciding factor. But for others, there is still lingering doubt. If you have the money to spare, then it is completely understandable that you might like to explore different options for accommodation if you are receiving more comfort in return.

Not unlike hotels, Airbnb’s are generally priced according to quality (emphasis on the generally). As the quality increases, so does the cost. It’s immensely difficult to throw some average figures at you, but as a general rule, you’ll be saving your pennies by opting for the latter.

It is also worth noting that although you don’t pay a fee to stay at someone’s house with Couchsurfing, it is always polite to thank them in some way. After all, they are going out of their way to host you. Some couchsurfers like to show their appreciation through shouting their host dinner or buying them a bottle of wine. Although this is not obligatory, it’s a pretty basic courtesy to show gratitude. Your host will certainly respect and remember that.

The Winner: Couchsurfing

Trullo Edera in Ostuni, Brindisi, Italy 

The excuse many people employ to justify their splurging on more expensive accommodation is that it is more comfortable. Comfort can refer to many things – most significantly degrees of luxuriance – but for the purposes of this article, I am going to refer to it in a more social light. In other words: how much does the presence of a stranger impact the ease and enjoyment of your stay?

Of course, if you are renting out an entire home on Airbnb, then you don’t have to worry about this. You’ve got the place to yourself! There’s no need to concern yourself with the whereabouts or judgements of another person. Five stars, Airbnb 👍

But… if you’re renting a private room or couchsurfing, then this factor might be of interest to you.

I’m not even going to be subtle about it: Couchsurfing takes the cake here. I just can’t help but feel uncomfortable when I’m renting a private room through Airbnb; you’re always running into your host but are so unsure of your relationship. Are you obligated to spend time with them? Invite them out for a drink?

At the end of the day, you can do whatever the hell you want. After all, you’re paying them and are entitled to use the space and time as you wish (respectfully, of course). But I still inevitably feel rude when our contact is limited solely to inaudible grunts in the hallway and waiting on each other to finish using the bathroom.

With Couchsurfing, the expectations are clear. It is considered ill-mannered to exploit someone’s generosity in exchange for a free bed. It is anticipated that you will spend time together and (ideally) make friends. If your host ventures to your home country, then perhaps you will even return the favour of opening your doors for them. If this implicit agreement isn’t your cup of tea, then maybe you should be punching Airbnb into Google instead.

The Winner: Couchsurfing

Romantic Suite in Valparaiso, Chile

Reliability refers to two different things in this context: whether the accommodation is actually that which is advertised online, and the likelihood of a host bailing on you.

This first applies more predominantly to Airbnb. I have stayed in a number of houses (thankfully a minority) where what I paid for wasn’t what was advertised online. A common occurrence is staying in a room different to that which is photographed. This wouldn’t be much of an issue if the same facilities were present, but unfortunately that is not always the case. One time, I even stayed somewhere where the entire house had been stripped after the photos were taken, leaving nothing but the bed upon which I was to sleep. But possibly the most frustrating thing to happen when arriving at the listing is to discover that – contrary to what is advertised – there is actually no Wi-Fi 😡 *cue millennial tantrum*

With Couchsurfing, you consider places for the merits of the host, not the house. This means that the quality of their home isn’t going to be of such a huge priority. Furthermore, with Couchsurfing, you learn to roll with the punches anyway. No one is going to be too upset if the bed you were promised turns out in fact to be an air mattress. What matters is that you have a place to sleep.

However, regarding the likelihood of a host bailing on you, it’s Airbnb’s time to shine. Because money is not changing hands with Couchsurfing, hosts are under no obligation to remain available to you. It is not uncommon for hosts to bail the very day you are expected to arrive – hours before, even. Yet with Airbnb, cancellations on behalf of the host get very muddly indeed and are to be avoided if at all possible. You have to organise refunds and then find somewhere else to stay, sometimes at very short notice. Luckily, it doesn’t happen often.

The Winner: Airbnb (just)

Balian Treehouse in Bali, Indonesia

When it comes to social matters, Airbnb and Couchsurfing are polar opposites.

As I discussed under the comfort heading, Couchsurfing exceeds all expectations. The very nature of the service is to put yourself out there and make friends with people whom you probably wouldn’t have the opportunity to meet under ordinary circumstances. By living under the same roof, you can develop quite an intimate bond – especially if you are staying longer than a couple of nights. This is especially desirable if you are a solo traveler and looking to meet people on the road. After all, one of the most efficient and reliable ways to make friends is to stay with them.

Whilst Couchsurfing reigns supreme in the social tiers, Airbnb is somewhat appalling. Some of the loneliest times I have ever felt on the road are those nights spent in private Airbnbs with only myself for company. Of course, this isn’t always a bad thing; lots of travellers – especially those in a pair or group – are simply looking for somewhere to retreat for the night to rest up. The last thing they may want is to be thrown into yet another social situation where they are pressured to slap a smile on their face and make uncomfortable small talk.

But one of the objectives of travel is to meet people, and therefore the ultimate goal with sociality is to make lasting friends. In saying that, we have a champion.

The Winner: Couchsurfing

White Space in Brooklyn, New York

It may sound somewhat picky, but when you’re in a foreign city and relying on public transport, prime location becomes something of a priority.

When you are using the Airbnb search engine, you can filter listings by location. This is a particularly handy tool if you know exactly what part of town you want to be in. Although you don’t receive the actual address until you have confirmed your payment, you do have knowledge of the street where you will be staying. Good enough, I reckon.

Yet with Couchsurfing, all you have to go on is the city. Occasionally you might strike gold and find that the host has written the suburb in their profile, but it’s relatively rare. The mentality behind this is that you’re lucky to get a bed at all, let alone start getting choosy. Although a distant location can be inconvenient at times, I don’t contest this.

I encountered poor location with couchsurfers in Madrid and Paris. In each place, I found myself hosted on the very outskirts of the city. It certainly made for a challenge finding my way there on the metro from the airports with a 30kg suitcase in tow. I won’t lie; Airbnb certainly looked a lot more appealing at that stage of the game.

The Winner: Airbnb

Luxury in Rivo, Lombardy, Italy

Last but certainly not least, we have something that cannot be emphasised enough: safety.

Perhaps Airbnb can afford to be neglected in this part. Statistically, you are far more likely to stumble upon a poor-quality listing than one where your personal safety is under threat. But as soon as you enter the domain of Couchsurfing, it’s a whole new ball game.

To be a couchsurfer – especially a solo female couchsurfer – you need to find the balance between trust and suspicion. On one hand, you need to be able to let a complete stranger welcome you into their home and share your company when you are at your most vulnerable. But on the other, you also need to have developed some good old fashioned common sense, and always keep an eye out for questionable behaviour from your host. Couchsurfing horror stories have not fallen upon deaf ears.

In my blog post, 5 Practical Gifts for Female Backpackers on their Bon Voyage, I briefly discussed some measures you might take to up the stakes of a safe and enjoyable couchsurfing experience. These include…

  • Never staying with anyone who doesn’t have (positive) references
  • Going with your gut instinct; if you are messaging someone and something feels a bit dodgy, listen to that. A lot of people use Couchsurfing as they would Tinder, so take everything with a grain of salt
  • Prioritising opting for verified hosts for better piece of mind

Long story short? Don’t be stupid. When you enter a stranger’s home, you are largely on your own (ooh, that rhymed). Couchsurfing has the potential to make or break a trip. Let’s do everything we can to avoid the latter.

The Winner: Airbnb

Bamboo House in Bali, Indonesia

Drum roll please!

And the verdict is… it completely depends on what you are looking for.

I know, I know. This is that blog post all over again where I refuse to play by the rules and give a black or white answer. But hear me out, okay?

Let’s typecast for a moment and imagine Airbnb and Couchsurfing as representational of two very different travellers. Airbnb is traveling with their partner on a short trip where they can afford to splurge a little on accommodation. They want to be able to spend their evenings exactly how they want, and to not have to bother about the stressful possibility of having to find somewhere to sleep last minute if it falls through. Alternatively, Couchsurfing is a solo traveler who is trying to stretch their budget as far as it will go so that they can see more over a longer period of time. They concern themselves with meeting new people and treasuring those new relationships, and they are flexible about the quality of their lodgings. Given the nature of their trip, they are prepared to accept the risk of unpredictable hosts and bizarre locations, because at the end of the day, it’s all about the experience.

Do you see what I’m getting at here?

I personally prefer Couchsurfing over Airbnb.

But like I just said, that is because I am someone who falls into the second category. I also find that you can predict what service someone will prefer given their age. The older people are, the more they generally opt for something reliable like Airbnb. It also helps that the older you are, the more savings you tend to have.

So, there you have it: the pros and cons of both Airbnb and Couchsurfing. I would love to hear your thoughts on whether one or the other reigns supreme, or any anecdotes you are willing to share on the subject. Comment below!

Photograph courtesy of Unsplash

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Traveling with the F-Word (That’s Right…Feminism)

Let’s have a little talk, shall we?

As a gender studies student, I was determined that I would somehow incorporate a blog post discussing this wonderful thing called feminism. For those of you that are not acquainted with feminism – or perhaps need a little refreshing in the midst of the anti-feminist backlash – allow me to welcome you back into the classroom.

Feminism is essentially the advocacy of women’s rights on the ground of the equality of the sexes. And when I say ‘essentially’, what I mean is that I copied and pasted that right out of the dictionary. Plagiarism points for me.

Gender equality – or inequality, I should say – bleeds into every area of life. We hear about the gender ratio in parliament, the wage gap between female and male employees, and even the extent of legal independence women should have in some parts of the world. As important as these issues are, there is a further niche where gendered assumptions and expectations permeate, however implicitly: travel.

In the travel arena, I am a very privileged individual. Pretending otherwise will not do anyone any good. I’m privileged because I grew up in a safe country rich with opportunity (shout out to New Zealand), am from a financially stable background and have a supportive family who encourage anything and everything I set my mind to. The term ‘privilege’ receives a bad reputation because it includes connotations of individuals who have never had to work a day in their life, don’t understand what it means to be confronted with setbacks, and who are generally just ‘bad people’. I acknowledge that the avenues I have taken to make progress towards my goals may not have been characterised by the hardship many other people experience, but that doesn’t automatically make me unworthy of enjoying them. Accepting that I am in a position of privilege – as uncomfortable as that process may be – affords me the opportunity to overcome the prevailing obstacle in the way of holding myself partly accountable for the injustice in today’s society.

Travel can be a feminist pursuit through many means. Anything that furthers women’s ability to achieve things that society may not necessarily acknowledge or approve of for women is a feminist issue. This article will illustrate 3 tropes which you – as a female traveler – can identify to challenge the mentalities that prevent women from participating in an equal and rewarding experience of the world 💪

The “Settle Down” Trope

You know what I’m talking about – the idea that a woman has only succeeded at being a woman if she has managed to land a job, find a man, slap a ring on her finger and pop out two or three young ‘uns. That, ladies and gentleman, is the arithmetic of womanhood. Anything that strays from this paragon means she has failed.

One of the many problems with this trope is that it doesn’t accommodate goals such as travel. How is a woman supposed to maintain a 9-5 job when she’s never in one place long enough to make the interview? How is a woman supposed to settle down if she doesn’t have the suburban house with the white picket fence? An airport is no place to raise children.

The reality is that this paradigm does not fit every woman. Truth be told, I would be surprised if any woman – or man, for that matter – was perfectly content following this preconceived course. Success is subjective, and in the words of Swami Vivekananda: “The idea of perfect womanhood is perfect independence.”

The “Vulnerable Woman” Trope

“But is it safe? You know… for a woman?” 

“Will you have a man with you?”

“No parent wants their daughter alone in a foreign country – you’re being selfish!”

If any of these sound familiar to you, then you will have been exposed to the Vulnerable Woman Trope. This is the one where – upon announcing your travel plans – people automatically latch onto the implications of your gender.

Now, I’m not stupid. I know that there are some places in the world that it would be simply irresponsible to venture alone. But there are also a lot of places that – while they certainly carry their risks – should not be off-limits for someone purely because they identify as a woman and not a man.

Statistics illustrate how men are actually twice as likely to experience violent assault committed by strangers than women. Yet, you rarely hear people warning their fellow male friends to avoid traveling alone. This fixation on the danger of solo female traveling only disseminates the cultural falsehood not only of women as vulnerable and helpless beings, but also of the conceptual impossibility of men as victims of crime. These ideas work to scare women out of expanding their comfort zone, and are all but an invitation for victim-blaming if a woman does happen to be assaulted whilst traveling on her own.

The take home message is that you should not let misogynistic stereotypes around female independence limit your opportunities. No one should travel somewhere without educating themselves on personal protection and welfare, and consulting the social and political landscape of any prospective country before booking those plane tickets should be a priority. Bear in mind that gendered advice around security can be delivered more for the purpose of reaffirming the Vulnerable Woman Trope rather than actually presenting a realistic view of safety. Traveling alone can be a rewarding and empowering experience – for both women and men – and we need to understand that threats to this independence are not all that meets then eye.

P.S. a fantastic resource for genuine advice on street harassment whilst traveling is this article by Everyday Feminism.

 

The “Woman = Things” Trope

When I was preparing to move overseas for the first time, I pulled a Marie Kondo and down-sized my possessions to the point where I could fit everything I owned into one suitcase. When I would share this with my friends, they would be astounded and ask how I could get rid of so much shit. And that’s what I want to emphasise – that it really was ‘shit’. It may have been shit I was admittedly attached to, but it was nevertheless shit. When it came down to it, I didn’t really need five pairs of Nikes. Nor did I really need three sets of reusable coffee flasks. Once I accepted that, a more minimalist lifestyle suddenly became a lot more appealing.

Society is obsessed with ‘things’ – and by ‘things’, I mean anything that you can buy/own. We tend to hierarchise people based on money; a habit propagated by commercialism and capitalism. We are taught that the more things we own, the more successful we are. We further observe this through the notion that shopping equals happiness.

Why is this a feminist issue, I hear you ask? Well, consider the relationship between females and shopping; the stereotype of women as ‘shopaholics‘ is well-established and reinforced by the philosophy that individuals that own a lot of stuff possess higher prestige and status. By going against the grain, females are gambling being judged as a lesser woman who has perhaps failed at cultural femininity.

Anyone who travels knows only too well that lugging bags upon bags of belongings wherever they go is a burden. Half the point of traveling is to detach yourself from material ownership and to feel at home – not within the four walls of a house – but by the quality of the people around you. A nomadic lifestyle is incompatible with the convention of women accumulating more and more stuff, which is all the more reason to challenge it.

Some final thoughts…

Travel provides many opportunities: the opportunity for new experiences, the opportunity to meet new people… and perhaps most importantly, the opportunity to learn.

Growing up in New Zealand, misogyny manifests in micro-aggressions. In other words, sexism is an implicit and underlying mechanism that characterises the female existence in a seemingly insignificant way (emphasis on the ‘seemingly’). But when I am in foreign places, the gender inequality can sometimes be so palpable, it’s like a slap to the face.

The downside to being a Kiwi is that it’s easy to take a relatively egalitarian society for granted. But through living in one of the more privileged countries in the world, us females have a political voice that is heard and respected. Educating first ourselves and then others about the injustices occurring in other societies is an opportunity that should not be undermined but rather encouraged.

Through a feminist approach to traveling, women become more aware and vocal of the inequalities plaguing humanity. I am a firm believer that social change is a bottom-up process, and what better way to start than by challenging the mentalities that reinforce sexist travel tropes.

Photos courtesy of Unsplash

Hungry for more? Be sure to check out my blog post: The Bucket List: Banksy’s Walled Off Hotel (Or Why Tourism is Political) 🌍

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