I don’t usually get nervous before a trip, but I was admittedly hesitant before hopping on a plane to Cairo. Like everyone else, I’ve watched the news in recent months as certain areas in the Middle East have imploded amidst bullets, bombs and kidnappings. I’ve also watched as Egypt has gone through its own revolution, throwing out one leader, replacing it with another even more dubious one and finally settling on a new government. Things have been quiet in Egypt recently, but it’s hard to know what that really means. Sure, everyone told me it was safe, the State Department told me it was safe but I still couldn’t help but wonder and I don’t think I’m alone.
Before I leave for any trip, I get a lot of questions via social media about whatever destination I’m visiting. When it came to Egypt though, safety and security dominated the inquiries. And with good reason; it’s confusing to know which countries in the Middle East are ok to visit and which ones aren’t and honestly, most travelers err on the side of caution and just skip the whole region. And just like my experience in Jordan, skipping Egypt is a mistake no one should make.
Egypt has depended on tourism for a long time and for well more than a century, traveling to the land of the pharaohs and visiting sites like the Pyramids, Sphinx, Luxor and others has been at the top of bucket lists for people around the world. For many of us it was pictures of those amazing pyramids that first fueled our wanderlust as kids, never letting up until we get that chance to see them in person. The revolution of 2011 changed all that.
The revolution was one of those moments that has and will continue to define Egypt for generations, but with it came a lot of uncertainty and political change that they’re still frankly trying to figure out. The violence we all saw on TV put a quick end to tourism in the short term in Egypt, and it’s only now that it has started up again.
I traveled to Egypt with Insight Vacations, a luxury tour operator that has run trips around Egypt for years. Like everyone else, they were forced to temporarily halt their operations, waiting until things calmed down. Last week I joined their first trip back to Egypt in two years, a signal that they believe the time is right once again to introduce people around the world to the wonders of ancient Egypt.
They’re not alone either, several other tour operators and cruise lines have once again started offering trips, but it begs the question: Is Egypt ready for tourists?
When it comes to safety and security, I always make sure that I keep up with current events, monitor State Department warnings and so on. The fact is that the mainland of Egypt has been fine and hopefully it will stay that way. The Sinai Peninsula next to Israel remains a region of uncertainty, and is frankly to be avoided. But the tours aren’t visiting Sinai, they’re visiting the classical tourist sites of Egypt and after visiting, I can see why.
To say that visiting Egypt is a once-in-a-lifetime experience is accurate I think. The numbers of ancient and incredible sites need to be seen to be believed. And guess what? There’s no one there. On the first day we pulled into the parking lot of Karnak Temple, one of the most famous temples of ancient Egypt and a definite tourist hotspot. We were the only coach bus there. The only one. Five years ago, that parking lot would have been full our guide said. It was a preview to a recurring theme throughout the trip – Egypt is open, but no one has noticed.
Two years is a long time to go without a job, or at least not much of one, but that’s exactly what the millions working in Egypt’s tourism industry have had to endure. From our tour director, who holds a Master’s in Egyptian History and Archeology, to the hawkers begging us to give them $1 for some postcards. Everyone has suffered and everyone is ready to return to normal.
So how did I feel traveling through Egypt? Fine actually, with not one hint of problems anywhere and that’s the truth. From chaotic Cairo to the southern city of Aswan and places in between, I met plenty of people, ambled along streets and alleyways but not once did I fear for my safety. I’m not saying this for the heck of it and of course I can’t guarantee it for everyone into the future, but it was my personal experience in Egypt.
For visitors, you will never see Egypt like you will today and in the months, and probably year or two to come. Instead of battling hoards of tourists, you will have the chance to slowly explore some of the most important sites in the history of the world practically alone. I stood in front of the mighty Pyramid of Cheops and I counted maybe 50 other people in the general vicinity of the pyramid. You know, the massive pyramid that’s bigger than Westminster Abbey or St. Peter’s Basilica? That’s unheard of and makes the experience very special for those who venture out to Egypt.
So yes, from my point of view I think that now is indeed a great time to visit Egypt. It seems to be safe and stable, deals can be had and more importantly, it’s a chance to live out that childhood fantasy I mentioned before. It’s also good for Egypt. Those millions working in tourism need money. They’re getting more and more desperate, and that’s never a good thing. They need to once again earn money so they can support their families and help everyone return to as normal a place as Egypt can get.
On my last day in Cairo I was walking through a market and a municipal worker, a street cleaner, looked up at me, grabbed my hand and said, “Thank you. Thank you.” That was it, but nothing else had to be said and that more than anything confirmed everything I had started to think about beautiful Egypt.