Mark Jones: Come to Egypt – you'll have the place practically to yourself
Saturday 15 June 2013
The official slogan of the Egyptian Tourist Board is "Egypt: where it all begins". Instead, they should lift one which the Australians ditched a few years back: "Where the bloody hell are you?"
I'll tell you where the bloody hell I am. I'm sitting on the balcony of the Hilton Luxor hotel. It's pleasantly hot outside and I'm looking through the palm trees over the Nile towards the Valley of the Kings. I was over there yesterday morning. I spent 10 minutes alone with Tutankhamun in the tomb excavated by Howard Carter in 1922. This wasn't a VIP visit. There was just hardly anyone there.
It was the same in the Egyptian Museum in Cairo. You could gaze into the young Pharaoh's gold death mask for as long as you liked. In normal times, you'd queue 40 minutes just to get into the museum and a further to get anywhere near Tutankhamun.
The Hilton is running at 15 per cent occupancy, which is about average for Luxor just now – "now" being right at the end of high season. It's a lovely property, just refurbished. Or rather, refurbished just before the revolution of 2011, and that's the crucial point. Tourism ground to a halt then and it's barely shifted since. Plans for a new Four Seasons in Luxor are on hold. The historic Winter Palace hotel, managed by Sofitel but owned by the government, awaits a badly needed restoration. The east bank of the Nile is clogged with mothballed cruise ships.
Then, in February this year, the hot-air balloon disaster happened. The world's focus was once again on Luxor, and once again for the wrong reasons.
So where the bloody hell are you? At home, not putting Egypt on your travel list. At home, worrying about the images from Tahrir Square.
I can't blame you. All I can say is that I haven't had a moment's concern for my safety – and that includes a couple of hours hanging out in Tahrir. As for the hassle? Well, the trinket and postcard sellers are desperate – you can hardly blame them – but they do take "no" for an answer. You'll get more grief in India, believe me.
They need your help and your pounds. But don't visit for their sake: do it for your own. You'll never get a better chance to see these temples, treasures and burial chambers with so much time and space to contemplate them properly.
There's a useful travelling principle here. As the BBC foreign correspondent, John Simpson, wrote recently in High Life magazine: "If I can, I always go somewhere which has just suffered a political upheaval, because security is always hugely reinforced, prices are rock-bottom, there are no other tourists and everyone's delighted to see you."
Following Simpson's Law, I've already been to Tunis and Greece. Apart from the rock-bottom prices, every word is true.
Mark Jones is editorial director of British Airways 'High Life' and Best Western 'Do Not Disturb' magazines. The full story of his trip to Cairo and Luxor is in 'High Life' (bahighlife.com).
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