Inside Travel: All quiet in Egypt's Valley of the Kings
The political unrest has kept tourists away. Ali Beach finds a country waiting for their return
Saturday 19 March 2011
Sitting in the shadow of the Great Pyramid of Giza this week, retired British couple Vic and Sandy Hills were in little doubt about the benefits of visiting revolutionary Egypt.
"We were concerned about coming," confessed 65-year-old Sandy to their tour guide, Mohammad. "But now we can sit here and listen to you without hundreds of other people around us." She had a point. All around the looming limestone colossus there was little to see but lonely horses nibbling at each other in the sun and bored-looking guides sitting at the reins of empty tour carriages.
The Red Sea resorts – hundreds of miles away from much of the trouble – escaped the worst of the crisis, with airlines including easyJet and British Airways continuing to operate there throughout. However, BA is axeing its Sharm El Sheikh service from May.
Some tourists are beginning to come back to the rest of Egypt following the recent upheaval, but despite the reopening of the temples and monuments last month the flow of visitors is still a trickle. The Egyptian Tourist Authority has no confirmed statistics for tourist arrivals last month, but the manager at the Pyramids information centre said there were currently around 300 people visiting the site each day. Usually there would be more than 4,000 foreign tourists to the site.
The nightly news diet of deaths and demonstrations was certainly bad for country's £7bn tourist industry, but it has resulted in a very different sort of holiday for those travellers who decided to visit Egypt anyway.
Tess Parent, a 24-year-old Canadian student backpacking in the region, said: "When the demonstrations were happening, I was wondering if I should come. When I got here I quickly realised the situation was calm. Everywhere I went, I was welcomed."
Sites such as the Valley of the Kings in Luxor and the temples of Abu Simbel in southern Egypt would normally be inundated with visitors at this time of year, but tourists can currently see the country's splendours without the usual crush of foreigners. In many ways – and despite the added attention of local touts – there has rarely been a better time to visit.
The disruption created by the January uprising was widespread. Thomas Cook and Thomson/First Choice cancelled flights to Luxor; the latter has also canned its programme to Aswan. Jet2 and BMI suspended Egypt-bound services, and BA was forced to change the timetable of its Cairo flights because of the military-imposed curfew.
Businesses across the country were hit hard. Anton Good, president of Swiss Inn Hotels and Resorts in Egypt, said his bookings fell 95 per cent during the upheaval.
His company lost nearly £1m during the uprising. "February was a complete loss," said Good. "Business is returning, but slowly."
There was a similar shortfall for the high-end Stella Di Mare Hotels and Resorts. Sawsan Farah, area director of sales and marketing, said it was hoped that a series of discounts would help lure tourists back. In the UK the parent company of Thomson and First Choice, TUI, released figures last month saying the disturbances in Egypt and Tunisia are likely to have cost up to £30m.
Now tour operators in Britain are slashing prices to get visitors flying to Egypt again. Availability at Thomson is thin, because it has postponed the opening of its new Sharm El Sheikh Sensatori resort by nine weeks, switching customers to other properties. But Thomas Cook has a week's all-inclusive to the Palmariva El Hayat in Sharm El Sheikh, departing a week today, for under £400 (of which £60 is Air Passenger Duty).
Tom Rees, senior travel and tourism consultant at Minte,l said that Egypt's tourist industry should be robust enough to withstand the political tremors. Revenue from travellers had increased by nearly a quarter over the past three years, he said – bucking a worldwide downward trend. Nearly 800,000 British travellers went there last year. Egypt's Sphinx-appeal will not be dented by a political blip.
According to Rees, "Every day there are news reports of violence in Libya is a day Egypt looks better by comparison."
Yet tourists should not be fooled, according to David Wiles, managing director of UK tour operator Discover Egypt, who said the ousting of Hosni Mubarak has not led to the price-slashing bonanza that people might expect. The Nile cruises offered by his and other companies were still being sold at premium rates, with places filled by customers who booked months ago and were unwilling or unable to cancel now the violence has died down. But Wiles did add that now was probably still the best time to go to Egypt. "There are normally 20,000 visitors a day at the Valley of the Kings. At the moment there are probably only about five."
Tempted by a visit? Bargain breaks
In a bid to lure tourists back to Egypt, some tour operators are offering discounts on late-availability holidays to the country, from the budget end of the market up to five-star breaks. Below is a selection of deals for departures in late March and April.
* First Choice is offering a week's all-inclusive stay at the family-friendly Holiday Village resort in Sharm el Sheikh for £485 per person. The resort packs in six swimming pools – one of which boasts a zip-wire overhead – plus a mix of both a la carte and buffet restaurants. The price includes return flights on Thomson Airways from Gatwick, departing 30 March (0871 200 4455; firstchoice.co.uk).
* Longwood Holidays has a week at the five-star Hyatt Regency Taba Heights hotel for £555 per person, which includes flights from Gatwick on 25 April, transfers and half board. This upmarket option at the top of the Gulf of Aqaba, close to Eilat, sits in the foothills of the Coloured Canyon – a dusty collection of red rocks which cuts a dramatic backdrop. The Hyatt Regency's rooms are palatial, plus there's a host of Mediterranean restaurants and beach bars to sample, with views of the Red Sea (020-8418 2516; longwoodholidays.co.uk).
* A more in-depth option is offered by On the Go Tours, which has a nine-day cultural tour of the Nile valley for £649 per person. The price includes return flights from Heathrow to Cairo on 29 March, transfers, two nights sailing on the Nile on board a traditional Egyptian felucca (sailing boat), four nights' accommodation in four- and five-star hotels, two nights on a train, breakfast each day and some meals. A local tour guide, with a degree in Egyptology accompanies the trip (020-7371 1113; onthegotours.com).
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