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.
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.”
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.”
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…
- Monolithic Giants: The Great Pyramids of Egypt
- 10 Things that Surprised Me About Cairo
- Vlog: Cairo Edition
And last but not least, find inspiration in Hamsa Mansour: The Egyptian Cyclist Showing How It’s Done
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