The last time I was in Egypt, the most popular tourist stretch of the Nile between Luxor and the Aswan High Dam was a non-stop bustling waterway, populated by small sailboats, working barges and river cruise vessels.
The scene from my vantage point on the sun deck of MS Grand Rose tells a very different story. There are more than 250 passenger ships licensed to sail on the Nile, but at present only around 30 are in operation.
The majority lie idle, moored up to five abreast with their doors locked or inhabited by solitary watchmen. On our first night, we walk through the empty lobbies of some of Red Sea Holiday’s nine other vessels to reach the 124-passenger ship.
Tourism used to account for 11 percent of the Egyptian economy but the Arab Spring took a heavy toll. River cruising in particular was hit hard. Between 2010 and 2012, the total number of U.K. passengers cruising the Nile fell by more than half, from 58,000 to 28,000 (and there are far fewer Americans).
In 2013, the number of U.K. passenger figures dropped further to 12,200, which was due to tourists being advised against all but essential travel to most parts of Egypt during the peak summer holiday season. This has since been lifted.
The U.S. State Department has a travel alert in place, and warns travelers that political unrest is likely to continue in the future. In particular, the government advocates avoiding travel to the Sinai Peninsula, where a bomb was detonated on a tourist bus, killing four people in Taba (which is near the Israeli border, far from the Nile Valley).
The State Department also urges visitors to avoid any demonstrations, “as even peaceful ones can turn violent.” The U.S. Embassy in Cairo is within a few blocks of Tahir Square, and occasionally has to close when protests occur.
In short, Egypt is unpredictable.
Visitors are coming back to Egypt, though it’s more of a trickle than a flood on the Nile at the moment — and involves few Americans.
Grand Rose – the ship I am on – is an all-inclusive ship that will be exclusively sold to the British market when tourism picks up. My fellow passengers – mostly Brits and Germans – on the seven-night Luxor round-trip cruise have no qualms about returning or visiting for the first time, particularly with the added benefit of tempting fares. On our excursions, we meet Europeans and a smattering of Chinese and other visitors from further afield.
The welcome we receive is as warm as the sunshine, with low-paid locals desperate to see the tourists come back. I speak to carriage drivers waiting patiently outside the ship who tell me their livelihoods virtually dried up overnight.
While the hassle from hawkers, the ensuing obligatory haggling and demands for tips for everything from taking a photo to handing out sheets of toilet paper is light-hearted, it is also tiring.
There are some things in Egypt that never change, and the relentless pestering was just as I remembered it last time around. I felt sorry for some of the vendors, but if they just left tourists alone – particularly the Brits who love to browse – they would sell far more.
The next day, we drive past lush fields and sugarcane plantations irrigated by the Nile to reach the Valley of the Kings, dug deep into the desert mountains and dating back to the 11th century BC. It contains the tombs of the pharaohs, most famously Tutankhamun whose burial chamber was unearthed by British archaeologist Howard Carter in 1922. A few years ago this would be full at this time of year – today there are only a handful of other tour groups are visiting the sun-baked valley.
Next stop is the newly opened replica of Tutankhamun’s tomb in the grounds of Howard Carter’s former home. Originally I wondered why people would want to see a facsimile when they can see the real thing. Then I am told that the boy king’s burial chamber is being damaged by humidity and the thousands tourists who have filed through over the years, so much so that many experts have called for it to be closed. The re-creation is a meticulous copy and, having seen both, I feel as if I am in the real thing. It’s also much more accessible for anyone with mobility issues and can be combined with a visit to the house, left just as it was in Carter’s time.
We sail out of Luxor past the imperious facade of the 19th century Winter Palace, once a retreat for the Egyptian royal family and now a “grande dame” hotel. It was here that Agatha Christie wrote her 1937 novel Death on the Nile.
As Egypt turns the page onto the next chapter of its long history, I am glad to be back. As long as you’re an adventurous traveller comfortable with a changeable and potentially volatile political landscape, now is a great time to go. You get to explore ancient sites and walk past towering statues with hardly anyone else around.
In spite of its recent difficulties and an uncertain political future, Egypt has withstood the test of time. Its history brings in the tourists, and it’s not going anywhere soon.