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In transition: Egypt slow to recover, especially in tourism

Exploring Egypt months after a revolution rocked the Middle East, the only conflict we witnessed was between a taxi and carriage driver, furiously arguing over our business.

The sidewalk scene was unsettling to a pair of tourists simply seeking a ride down the street. But it was nothing compared to our pre-travel fears, fueled by media reports of violence.

And it revealed a larger truth: In a nation so dependent on tourism, these are very tough times.

Curious to explore a nation in transition, my 22-year-old daughter and I discovered that Egypt’s loss was our gain.

The turmoil in January caused visitors to rush for the exits ― and they’ve stayed away, through the long, hot summer. The ongoing trial of ousted President Hosni Mubarak, triggering clashes between supporters and detractors, won’t fix things quickly ― rather, it is one step in a long process of building the new Egypt, with elections and constitutional reforms still ahead.

But the nation’s Pharaonic treasures and pyramids are as stunning as ever. And there’s a new tourist attraction: Cairo’s Tahrir Square, where demonstrators gathered in anti-government protests. Although not much to look at, it is a symbol of peaceful resistance, ringed by vendors doing a brisk trade in “25th January” T-shirts, flags, caps and bumper stickers.

We also admired triumphant graffiti, marveled at Mubarak’s burned-out headquarters of the National Democratic Party and toured an art display dedicated to the revolution.

It’s not necessary to line up for hours, as is customary, to enter the carved tombs in Luxor’s Valley of the Kings. Instead, we experienced what English archaeologist Howard Carter must have felt in 1923, peering down lonely tunnels for that first glimpse of Tutankhamun’s sarcophagus.

Riderless camels and horses ringed the empty sand-swept parking lots of the pyramids at Giza, where hundreds of tour guides, postcard sellers and trinket sellers also waited for customers.
A lack of tourists have left many camels and their guides waiting for business at the pyramids in Giza, Egypt. (MCT)
A lack of tourists have left many camels and their guides waiting for business at the pyramids in Giza, Egypt. (MCT)

There was no jostling for snapshots of the Sphinx. At the famed Egyptian Museum, about 200,000 people a day once paraded past dimly lit cabinets of antiquities. We were free to stroll around and linger at favorite sights.

Along the Nile, many traditional falouka sailboats were roped to the docks.

Even the touristy Red Sea beach resort of Sharm el-Sheikh, far from Cairo’s turbulence, offered deeply discounted rooms. So did the more charming smaller towns north to Jordan.

“It is very safe and very quiet here,” said Ali Osman, front office manager of the stunning Coralia Club Hotel in the sleepy south Sinai Peninsula beach town of Dahab. Like its next-door neighbors ― the Meridian, Hilton and other upscale hotels ― this elegant Sofitel hotel closed its doors in late January, rather than operate at a loss. In February, only 35 percent of rooms were filled.

“We drop our rates to keep reasonable occupancy,” Osman said. Our lovely oceanview room, with a delicious breakfast and dinner included, cost only $95. Yet the hotel was half empty.

As always, Russians are everywhere. Australians have begun to venture back, along with New Zealanders. We saw a scattering of French and Brits.

But there were no signs of Americans.

One morning at dawn, I climbed aboard the small motorboat of naturalist Mohamed Arabi ― “The Birdman of Aswan” ― and had a personal introduction to exotic Nile species such as sunbirds, gallinules and storks.

“Because of all the American propaganda outside, only you, you’re the only one here!” he despaired. “What kind of problems you see today? There is not any problem. There is no problem at all.”

Back home in Palo Alto, California, while we packed for our trip, worried friends asked: “What about Lara Logan?” ― the CBS war correspondent who was stripped by a mob and then sexually assaulted, requiring four days of hospitalization, while a crowd of 100,000 celebrated the fall of Mubarak in Tahrir Square; she was saved by women, who closed ranks around her. Privately, family members questioned my parenting skills.

It is true that Egypt has no head of state. The civil police, symbols of Mubarak’s repression, abruptly have withdrawn. Political unrest continues in neighboring nations.

Thousands of troops have been moved into the Sinai Peninsula as part of a major operation against al-Qaida inspired militants, increasingly active there since Mubarak’s ouster. Authorities have blamed these militants for the Aug. 18 attack of Israelis on the southern Israel-Egypt border, as well as pipeline bombings in the north. The violence does not appear to be targeting tourists.

But of this I was sure: Opportunities don’t wait for perfect timing.

My daughter had just graduated from college and had an entire month free. My work at this newspaper, covering higher education, had slowed for the summer. Plus, we already had under our belt other memorable adventures in edgy nations within Africa and Latin America.

So we went. Cautiously.

We steered clear of political gatherings in Cairo, particularly after the mosques emptied on Fridays. We were careful to dress conservatively, to not walk alone or venture into the poorest neighborhoods, or look strange men directly in the eye.

The U.S. Embassy has received increasing reports during the past several months of foreign women being harassed, or groped in taxis and in public places.

IF YOU GO:

SECURITY: On April 29, the U.S. Department of State lifted the ordered departure for the U.S. Embassy, which has resumed normal operations in Cairo. But during the trial of former President Hosni Mubarak, the state department recommends avoiding the immediate vicinity of the Police Academy and exercise caution on the Ring Road that passes in front of the building. Because Egyptian security services have not yet fully redeployed, the state department warns of possible sporadic unrest. Police response to emergency requests for assistance or reports of crime may be delayed. The Egyptian government also continues to enforce a countrywide curfew from 2 to 5 a.m. The security situation in Luxor, Aswan, and the Red Sea resorts, including Sharm el-Sheikh and Dahab, remains calm. Find the latest security alerts at http://travel.state.gov.

PHOTOGRAPHY: There are restrictions on photographing military personnel and sites, bridges and canals, including the Suez Canal. Egyptian authorities may broadly interpret these restrictions to include other uniformed personnel and potentially sensitive structures, such as embassies, public buildings with international associations, and some religious edifices.

FOOD AND WATER: It is generally safe to eat properly prepared, thoroughly cooked meat and vegetables in tourist hotels and restaurants and on Nile cruise boats. Avoid eating uncooked vegetables. Tap water in many locations is not potable. Instead, drink bottled water or water that has been boiled and filtered.

DRIVING: Egypt has one world’s highest rates of road fatalities per mile driven. Impatient drivers routinely ignore traffic rules. Most traffic lights in Cairo appear not to function. Pedestrians should exercise extreme caution when crossing roads. Trains and subways (divided by gender) are usually a safe means of transportation in Egypt. The U.S. embassy recommends against public minibuses.

TRAVEL DOCUMENTS: A passport and visa are required. Tourists can obtain a renewable 30-day tourist visa on arrival at an Egyptian airport for a $15 fee, payable in U.S. dollars.

MISCELLANEOUS: Egyptian society is conservative and women should dress modestly. When photographing local women, ask permission first; many will object.

By Lisa Krieger

(San Jose Mercury News)

(MCT Information Services)
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