In the US a few years ago I invited some American friends to visit me in England. Their response was, "Maybe when it's less dangerous." It took a moment to realise they were talking about IRA bombs. "But I've never seen any trouble," I insisted. They were unconvinced; I was infuriated by their unwillingness to believe me.
Travelling in Egypt, I could hear a similar frustration in the comments of the locals I met. "It's ludicrous that people stay away," said one Egyptian woman on the journey from Sinai to Cairo. "Don't people realise these Islamic Fundamentalists are just a minority of people in Egypt, and the odds of being attacked are less than those of being run over by a bus in England?"
I could see her point. Around 15,000 people have died on British roads since 1992, compared with two Britons killed by terrorist attacks in Egypt. As we drove through some of the most stunning scenery across the desert, past Bedouin men on camels striding magnificently across the mountain plains, and through oases scattered with palm trees straight from a Hollywood film set, I couldn't imagine a more unlikely place to see a terrorist. "You must go home and tell people Egypt is not dangerous," her friend, an engineer from Cairo added, "and we want people to come."
In one very selfish way, I didn't want to do as they said - the sight of packed tourist coaches trundling through that idyllic desert route would certainly spoil my vision of Egypt. And anyway, being thought of as a kind of touristic version of Kate Adie is also quite a novelty. "Aren't you brave?" people had said before I left. The truth is, the nearest I got to intrepid was when I started to climb the pyramids and decided it was too much like hard work. Travelling to a country that others are scared of going to is quite a thrilling experience, especially when you realise you're not being brave at all.
The Egyptians are very worried about the effect of terrorism on tourism. In our case, the authorities seemed to be so intent on making the tour group I was with feel protected that it was quite a challenge to persuade them that our minibus didn't need a police escort on the busy highway from Alexandria to Cairo. We did, however, give in on our journey to Siwa, a remote oasis in the north of Egypt. This was more because of wishing to indulge the 18-year-old rookie policeman they pushed on to our bus, excited at the prospect of being away from home for a few days, rather than fear. I don't think for a moment that we were ever in any danger, and I doubt if there was anything our baby-faced policeman without a gun could have done about it if we were - but he came anyway and seemed to enjoy practising his English and guiding us to the best sunset locations.
So given the chance, would I go back to Egypt next week? The answer is as clear-cut as the response to the following: do I want to snorkel in one of the best diving locations in the world; breathe the air in ancient Pharaonic tombs and marvel at the perfectly intact hieroglyphics; visit some more of the 96 pyramids around the country; learn about the ancient Bedouin culture and journey into the dramatic Sinai mountains? To each, an emphatic "yes".
And do I think I would be in danger? On a rational basis, no. You should worry more about crossing the road in Cairo than becoming a victim of terrorism. Master what I termed "the Egyptian miracle walk" - a nonchalant stroll across at least five lanes of chaotic traffic without looking worried or angry or speeding up - and you deserve immediate Egyptian residency.
But the trend of targeting tourists is not one that should be taken lightly. As an Egyptian friend explains, "The focus of attacks on the tourism industry is linked to the fact that fundamentalists are generally poor, young, and unemployed. The fundamentalist movement isn't really religious, but feeds upon their lack of power and their frustrations, through their poverty." And as with tourism development in many Third World countries, tourism in Egypt accentuates the gap between the rich and the poor, especially when tourism facilities are luxurious and foreign-owned. By visiting very poor areas in luxury buses and staying at big hotels, which are often in poor areas, tourists are just rubbing salt into wounds.
So what can tourists do? Go to Egypt, enjoy the culture, the landscape and the people, and travel in a way that puts as much money into local hands as possible. If the fear of attack leads to the increased ghetto- isation of tourists into protected areas, and the increased physical and economic marginalisation of the people, it would certainly be the worst thing for us all.
Foreign Office travel advice for Egypt: "Extremists have conducted a campaign of violence against the Egyptian government since 1992 and have warned tourists not to visit. The authorities attach the highest priority to protecting visitors. But as the latest attack shows, security cannot be guaranteed and tourists appear, in this incident, to be the deliberate target. Visitors are advised not to travel by road, rail or river to the Governornate of Minya, unless they have specific business there".
Terror and tourism
The fax landed on my desk just as news was arriving about the latest terrorist attack on tourists in Cairo. It invited me on a freebie to the self-styled Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus. "Because of the long-running political feud between the two sectors, the North has remained virtually unspoiled." Spin doctors in the travel industry are never short of finding silver linings among the clouds of international politics.
The more tourism spreads its tentacles into hitherto "undiscovered" parts, the more it runs into conflict with geo-politics and terrorism. The reason that large numbers of travellers are only now starting to discover the broad and blissful Pacific beaches of El Salvador and Nicaragua is that these Central American republics spent most of the Eighties in varying degrees of civil turmoil.
Travellers seeking the new and different are attracted to former war zones for the simple reason that it takes time for images of violence to subside - so there is a lag between the end of a conflict and the commencement of mass tourism.
For the last couple of years, the travel industry has talked excitedly about the re-emergence of Beirut as a destination. The extreme violence rained upon Lebanon this week will set back the tourism clock and affect its many sub-industries. A new guidebook, The Traveller's Survival Kit: Lebanon, is being rapidly rewritten before its publication in mid-May and the line "now that peace has been restored" has been removed from the back cover.
Although many terrorist groups have now latched on to the political value of targeting tourists, the number of British casualties of terrorism is tiny compared with the overall risks of travel; a car crash in France or malaria contracted in Kenya is much more likely to kill you than a politically motivated attack. But, as Britain's inbound tour operators are finding, image is crucial. Bomb attacks on London landmarks and double- decker buses are bound to deter some visitors.
It is a grisly truth of travel that one after-effect of violence is holidays at giveaway prices. A press release has just arrived from leading long- haul operator Kuoni. From this week until the end of June, you can fly BA from London to Colombo and have a week in a three-star hotel for pounds 399, nearly pounds 200 less than the lowest BA fare for the flight alone. Bomb attacks by Tamil separatists have dented the long-haul travel industry's hopes for Sri Lanka. As this latest offer shows, the tourist who follows the tragic course of terrorism around the world can cash in.
Foreign Office Travel Advice: call 0171-238 4503 or 4504, or consult BBC-2 Ceefax from page 564 onwards. The Internet address is http://www.fco.gov.uk/Reuse content