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Simon Calder

Egypt – what travellers need to know

Egypt is one of the most popular winter-sun destinations for British holidaymakers. How much danger are they in – and what are the options for people planning to go? This updated advice was compiled on Monday 7 February; all information was checked and correct at that time, but will no doubt change.

Q What is the Foreign Office saying?

“We continue to advise against all but essential travel to Cairo, Alexandria, Luxor and Suez. We recommend that British nationals without a pressing need to be in Cairo, Alexandria or Suez leave by commercial means, where it is safe to do so. Respect the curfew and listen for announcements about any changes to the curfew requirements. The internet is currently not working and mobile phone coverage is intermittent. There are many unofficial checkpoints throughout Cairo which have been set up by gangs who are searching bags and stealing valuables. There are reports of some cars carrying foreign passengers having been attacked with rocks.”

Many other countries are urging their citizens to defer non-essential travel to Egypt, regardless of destination.

Q How many British travellers are in the areas the Foreign Office has put off-limits?

There is a handful in Luxor, at the start or end of a Nile river trip, and some in Cairo - which is the main starting point for many travellers on trips through Egypt. The other two cities on the Foreign Office warning list - Alexandria and Suez - have very few tourists. By going into an area against Foreign Office advice, most travel insurance policies are invalidated.

People booked on a cruise through the Suez Canal from the Red Sea to the Med have been told the stop for Cairo has been axed, and they will be going to Eilat in Israel instead. And British Airways is saying that any passengers booked to Cairo can switch at no extra cost to Sharm El Sheikh instead.

Q Most British holidaymakers in Egypt are at Red Sea resorts. Are they at risk?

Not according to the Foreign Office and Britain's biggest holiday companies, Thomson and Thomas Cook. Most are on the Sinai Peninsula, a very different region to the rest of Egypt.

Given the bloody history of terrorist attacks on tourist resorts in the Sinai, it would be rash to suggest there's no danger - but certainly it's extremely unlikely that the present insurrection would spread to somewhere like the main resort, Sharm el Sheikh, where there's a very high security presence and no unemployment because Egyptians aren't allowed to live there unless they have a job in tourism.

For the past week, Thomas Cook has maintained: “Our experienced teams on the ground assure us that no tourist areas at the Red Sea have been affected in any way by the recent demonstrations. They are fully operational and holiday makers are continuing to enjoy these popular resorts.”

Thomson says: “There have been no reports of any related incidents in Sharm el Sheikh or any other popular Red Sea tourist areas, where the majority of our customers are based. No curfews are in place and business is as usual. Its holidays to Sharm el Sheikh, Hurghada, Taba, and Marsa Alam is safe and is operating business as usual.”

Q Are flights still operating?

Most, though services to Cairo and Luxor are seriously disrupted because of the need to arrive before the curfew begins. Strangely, Thomson has cancelled its entire programme of flights to Aswan – which isn’t on the “don’t go” list. The company says:

“As a precautionary measure, we have taken the decision to cancel all outbound flights to Aswan up to and including 25 April.”

The company also says

“many customers visiting Aswan combine it with a Nile Cruise, and these cruises have been disrupted by the demonstrations”.

Yet the other departure point for those cruises, Luxor, has only seen cancellations up to 16 February.

Q Hundreds of thousands of people are booked or planning to travel to Egypt this year. What are their options?

If you haven't yet booked, of course you can simply change destination. If you've paid a deposit on a trip at Easter and are being asked to settle the balance - you could decide to forfeit the deposit. But there's no sign of the package holiday companies relaxing their attitude and letting travellers switch to other destinations. That would happen only if the Foreign Office advice hardens to warn against travelling anywhere in Egypt, which itself would mean an evacuation on a far bigger scale than Tunisia, where there were perhaps 5,000 British holidaymakers; there are six times as many in Egypt, spread out all over the country, and twice as far from the UK. But Egypt is a fantastically welcoming country, and the people know how important tourism is to the economy; after the terrorism attacks over the years, it's taken time to build it back. And when it all calms down, you can bet there will be some real bargain holidays.

Q What’s the long-term outlook?

Bleak, at least for the millions of Egyptians who depend, directly or indirectly, on tourism. Carrol Flowers, a long-term Sharm resident: “We are still fine here and in fact the beaches in Naama Bay were quite full today. My colleagues and friends are very sad with the situation going on in Cairo especially and are very sad that due to this the tourists may not come and they will lose their jobs. They love working here with the tourists and especially in such an amazing environment, with a beautiful sea, with the fabulous mountain and desert backdrop, also great hotels and they are such a friendly, innovative, hard working, helpful people. The foreigners here feel so sad for them. We have a great camaraderie amongst us all here, foreigners and Egyptian. There are not many places you can walk down the street at 2am in the morning and feel safe and I do here. For all my friends here, I hope the situation in Cairo will be concluded soon with the best outcome for them.”

This advice was compiled on the morning of Monday 7th February; all information was checked and correct at that time, but will no doubt change.