Deserted pyramids, 'revolution specials' in Egypt

By Coralie Carlson

Associated Press

Published: Thursday, Sept. 15 2011 7:20 a.m. MDT

This Aug. 9, 2011 photo shows a pedestrian as he walks past security forces guarding Tahrir Square in Cairo, Egypt. The Egyptian Revolution has taken a toll on the country's tourism. Tourism was down 35 percent between April and June compared to last year, according to Egypt's Central Agency for Public Mobilization and Statistics. About 2.2 million tourists visited Egypt during those three months, compared to 3.5 million in 2010.

Coralie Carlson, Associated Press

CAIRO — The pyramid rose out of the sand before me, its smooth stone walls crumbling around the edges, but still majestic and mountainous. As I hiked around it, studying the etched hieroglyphs and pausing to pick up a small rock from the sand, I was filled with wonder. How did the ancient Egyptians build such a huge structure? What was life like 4,500 years ago when it was constructed?

And ... where the heck is everybody?

On that late summer morning, I had a Wonder of the World all to myself. I saw three other tourists, who were leaving as I arrived. The only other living creatures in sight were my driver and two sleeping camels, their backs unburdened by photo op-seeking travelers.

Clearly, the Egyptian Revolution has taken a toll on the country's tourism. Months of protests followed by the resignation of Hosni Mubarak and the ongoing political uncertainty have scared off many Westerners (including some of my friends and family, who questioned my decision to come on a work-related trip).

Tourism was down 35 percent between April and June compared to last year, according to Egypt's Central Agency for Public Mobilization and Statistics. About 2.2 million tourists visited Egypt during those three months, compared to 3.5 million in 2010.

Several cruise ships have canceled ports of call in Egypt because of the political upheaval. Norwegian Cruise Line canceled its sailings to Egypt from late November to early April, citing "political unrest in the regions visited on these itineraries." In February, Princess Cruises had canceled stops in Egypt, but it has since reinstated them.

And while the protests that toppled Mubarak are long over, the country is still making the kinds of headlines that spook leisure travelers. On Sept. 9, a mob attacked the Israeli embassy in Cairo. A few days earlier, authorities proposed requiring tourists to apply for visas before arrival, then turned around and rescinded the proposal.

But other factors were also keeping tourists at bay as I stood alone at the pyramid: It was August, which is not the ideal time to visit a desert, and it was Ramadan, a holy month of daytime fasting when the country slows down. Some restaurants and businesses close for the whole month; other places including the Egyptian Museum have reduced hours.

But for me, the revolution and lack of fellow tourists made for a fantastic trip. The usually overcrowded city was much more manageable to get around, there were some great deals to be had, and there was an energy, almost electric, on the streets. I was mesmerized by the political graffiti around Cairo, and inspired by firsthand accounts of the protests.

Others have also caught on that it might be a good time to visit. Although bookings at Geographic Expeditions, which offers Nile cruises, are down by more than half this fall and winter compared to last year, inquiries have started to pick up, spokesman John Sugnet said. He said one reason was positive word-of-mouth from those who have ventured into the county recently.

At the Bent Pyramid in Dahshur, about 25 miles south of Cairo, there was no line for tickets (60 Egyptian pounds or about $10 U.S.) and no line to go inside a pyramid. Since I was traveling alone and a bit scared of going inside, a worker manning the entrance to the pyramid happily climbed down the steep, narrow, claustrophobia-inducing tunnel with me. I was thankful for the extra attention.

The more popular pyramid site is Giza, which includes the Sphinx, in a suburb of Cairo. I also found extremely short lines there. It wasn't as empty as Dahshur, but the crowds were very light.

At another typically crowded destination, the Egyptian Museum, I braced for huge lines to the King Tut exhibit. My guidebook suggested coming first thing in the morning to avoid the lines, but I had slept in. I shouldn't have worried. I walked right up to the fantastic golden mask and had no problem meandering around the museum's many other treasures.

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