I just got back from a cruise up the Nile in Egypt. These have long been a common tourist fixture in the south, between Luxor and Aswan, but it’s been almost twenty years since cruise ships have been seen in Middle Egypt, between Cairo and Luxor. So when people on the banks caught sight of our ship, the Hamees:
which is a five-storey behemoth in white, 72m long and towering almost 12m high, lined (as it was) with pasty, grey-haired tourists pointing cameras at them, it was a sight to behold. I watched him watching:
And they watched me watching them watching me:
But when it got to all of them watching all of us watching them, I wasn’t sure who was really watching who:
I think we all thought it was the other lot who were really worth watching.
She stopped work to watch:
They’d already stopped:
(A little bit of audio here.)
And I’m not sure this lot had even started:
Sometimes, people just refused to be interested.
Other times, it was the best thing that had happened all day – heck, all WEEK!
These guys in Assyut couldn’t get enough pictures of our boatload of fat, old Europeans taking pictures of them. “Check out this one!”
“No seriously, welcome to Egypt!” (“Oh God, this is so embarrassing…”)
“Oh yeah, forgot, cameras, gotta strike a pose. There.”
Or, er, not.
And after the Assiut boys had their fun, it was the Assiut girls’ turn.
I love this one:
These tiny kids already knew they should do the waving at tourists thing.
But these two definitely weren’t about to do THAT. They’d seen MUCH bigger ships LOADS of times before, anyway.
But it’s only a ship. Definitely no need to get too excited.
Unless you’re a camel, that is.
…and then there’s so over-excited your pants are showing:
Then again, not everyone bothers with pants.
(Trust me, you don’t want to see the hi-res original of that.)
More from Egypt to follow…
That’s it. Go ahead and book your holiday. You’ll have a fabulous time. Thanks for reading.
Oh, you want more?
For this particular trip I didn’t go to Alex or the Delta, I didn’t go to Sinai & the Red Sea resorts, and I didn’t go to the Western Desert. That’s a chunk of Egypt missing. But I did spend time in Cairo, Luxor and Aswan, I did visit key cities and archaeological sites in Middle Egypt, and I did talk to a few people. Here’s my take on things.
Tourism to Egypt is way down. In 2010, 15 million tourists visited. In 2011 that was down to 10 million. Then 11 million in 2012.
But in my book 11 million people is a pretty sizeable vote of tourist confidence – in terms of sheer numbers, it’s more than Morocco gets, more than South Africa, and far more than Argentina, India or Japan. But there’s a political transition under way in Egypt. The country is emerging after decades of dictatorship. Vested interests are jockeying for position. That means Egypt is in the news quite a bit. Work with that. Understand it. Don’t wait for things to go back to normal. There is no more ‘normal’.
And lack of political stability doesn’t necessarily mean lack of tourist safety. Quite the opposite. Police are extra-vigilant now around tourists. The local tourism industry knows it can’t afford to be even a tiny bit complacent. Nobody is taking any chances. Egypt, in some ways, is safer now for tourists than it was before 2011.
Package tours – a worry-free holiday
Book a package tour through a reputable (bonded) company – with flights, transfers, accommodation and excursions included – and you’ll be as safe as safe can be. Even if your tour operator at home is hazy about what’s happening on the ground, their Egyptian agents will know the score at every point, adjusting and refining itineraries to match current conditions.
If you’re on the Red Sea, everything will be normal in and around your resort. If you’re in the south, all of Luxor and Aswan are safe for tourists (other than desperate vendors and guides being extra-specially pushy). If you’re in Cairo, you’ll likely be placed in a hotel away from the downtown area – probably out near the Pyramids, which is absolutely fine. If you make any excursions to sites, it will most likely be by private bus, possibly in convoy with other buses and/or with police escort.
All in all, it’s a worry-free holiday.
Personally, I don’t like package tours. But if you want to see the sights and cover decent ground, a package tour is probably the best way to visit Egypt at the moment.
If you’re travelling independently, you need to have your head screwed on and take slightly more care.
Independent travellers – Tahrir Square in detail
Most guidebooks start their Cairo city account with Tahrir Square. But times have changed. Travel writers would do better to pick another starting point. Currently (May 2013) Tahrir has become distinctly dodgy. Aside from the Egyptian Museum – best reached by taxi – I can’t come up with a compelling reason for tourists to go to Tahrir Square at all just now. Half the square is cordoned off as a construction site. The ex-Nile Hilton – now Ritz-Carlton – has been closed for years. The shops and cafes along the square’s eastern frontage are distinctly ordinary – and, with the square’s new notoriety, are now fringed by vendors and other boisterous characters keen to latch onto foreign gawpers. There’s fast food – KFC, Hardees, Pizza Hut – but not much else.
I’m no shrinking violet, and I’m also not a government official obligated to promote maximum caution. I’m just a British outsider who’s lived, worked and played in Cairo, and been round the Middle East circuit a few times over the last 20 years to boot. And my advice is to think very hard before going to Tahrir Square.
If you want to go, go in daytime – and don’t hang about. If this is your first time in Cairo, I suggest you skip Tahrir.
Either way, I certainly wouldn’t go to Tahrir after dark, or anytime on Fridays.
(Here comes the scary bit.) Tahrir is where protests start, it’s where mobs gather, and it’s where police have laid walls of concrete blocks across several side-streets in order to cut off exit routes and kettle people inside the square (photo and map). And in case you weren’t aware, not all protests these days are noble demands from righteous citizens for democracy. They’re just as likely to comprise several hundred pumped-up young men, armed with knives, guns, molotovs and/or other makeshift weapons, setting fires in the street and facing off against the police for no clear reason. This exasperates ordinary people and committed activists alike. Law and order aren’t totally breaking down, but economic pressures are intense and crime is on the rise (from, it must be said, a very low starting-point). Sexual assaults on women – by which I mean forcible seizure and/or abduction, violent bodily attacks, mass public rape – are a growing feature of the ‘protests’ in Tahrir.
Most of the time, of course, daily life is tension-free. You might not see or even sense anything untoward. These tourists didn’t, for instance. I’m pleased for them.
Be aware that the area around Tahrir – from 6th October Bridge in the north to the British Embassy in the south – is dodgier than the square itself. The side-streets behind the Mogamma building – particularly around Simon Bolivar Square – are notoriously unsafe after dark (this is where Guardian correspondent Jack Shenker was mugged earlier this month, and also where mobs smashed their way into the InterContinental Hotel Semiramis). Mohammed Mahmoud Street – now blocked by a concrete wall – has seen many recent protests. If tear gas is being fired, the ventilation system for Tahrir Square’s metro station (named Sadat) has been known to suck the gas underground into the metro.
If you’re visiting the Garden City district, or staying in one of the hotels there (Kempinski, Four Seasons, Grand Hyatt or others), be aware that Qasr Al Aini Street is blocked at the Tahrir Square end: the only access is along the Corniche. But the Corniche tunnel exit by the Qasr Al Nil Bridge (directly beside the Semiramis) is one of Tahrir’s flashpoints, where crowds gather: if you’re driving back to Garden City after dark you’d do better to make a large circle around the area to approach it from the south instead.
Independent travellers – around Cairo
Cairo seemed fine to me this time, no scarier than any other big city and less scary than many. (The Financial Times agrees!) I walked a lot – around the Coptic churches near Mar Girgis metro, across downtown from Tahrir to Ataba, all the way through Islamic Cairo on Muski and Al Azhar to El Hussein, into the backstreets off Al Moaz, outside the walls past Bab Al Futuh, etc etc – and everything felt crazily normal to me.
I’m pretty naive, though – and people tell me I also blend in fairly well as a local. And I’m male. All of which slants my experience.
But I think visitors would do well to ditch the idea that Tahrir is some kind of Times Square/Piccadilly Circus/Place de la Concorde. Stay elsewhere. Stay in Zamalek. Stay in Dokki. Cairo is big enough that every district is like its own city centre.
The best bit of advice I ever heard for walking in Cairo? Carry your stuff (camera, water, book etc) in an ordinary black plastic bag, the kind the locals carry shopping in. Nothing says ‘foreigner’ more than a daypack. A plastic bag – along with a button shirt, long trousers and a bit of facial swarthiness – has let me amble unremarked into more back alleys than I can remember.
[UPDATE: Travel writer Zora O'Neill tweets to tell me the plastic bag advice was hers - she put it in the LP Egypt guide in 2007, she says. Credit to Zora. And apologies too.]
Independent travellers – around Egypt
As for the rest of Egypt, there are probably only two areas of concern for independent travellers. One is the Sinai. The south Sinai coast, from Sharm to Taba, seems to be fine – but any excursions inland (including to St Catherine’s) seem significantly riskier just now. One Egyptian travel agent I talked to said he’d recently refused to book transport from Sharm to St Catherine’s for a client – “I don’t want the responsibility,” he told me.
Would I travel overland between Cairo and Sinai just now? I’m not sure. I’d take advice before deciding. I might fly.
The whole of northern Sinai is off-limits to tourists.
Middle Egypt – effectively, the Nile between Cairo and Luxor – is just opening up again to tourism. Visiting these places (Beni Suef, Minya, Assyut, Sohag) was never easy. For a time in the 90s and 00s, during an Islamist insurgency, tourists were barred altogether. Even if it’s possible to travel there independently now, from what I’ve been told you’ll very likely be assigned a police minder for the duration of your stay, both inside the cities and if you choose to head out to any archaeological sites in the countryside. I saw no other tourists when I walked in these places last month.
Elsewhere, Luxor and all points south are suffering badly from the lack of tourism just now. Group bookings are way down – which means independent travellers can reckon on quieter excursions and more rewarding encounters. Visit, and you’ll probably be welcomed like a long-lost relative. Who’s come to buy things. Lots of things.
A few days ago, investigative journalist Habib Battah posted a report on his (excellent) blog, describing a nosy around one of the many fenced-off plots in central Beirut. Click the link to have a quick read, first, if you haven’t already.
Since I read that, I’ve also been asking around, and have come up with the following, from a source I trust – an archaeological expert who wants to remain anonymous.
This person says the Wadi Abu Jamil area was – as Battah suggested – Beirut’s hippodrome in Roman times. It is currently being excavated by Hans Curvers, a Dutch archaeological consultant. Curvers has published papers on Beirut’s hippodrome here, and was interviewed by the Beirut Daily Star in 2011 on exactly this subject.
My source continues that the site photographed by Battah is closed off because work is currently being done there by a Marburg University team led by Professor Winfried Held. There’s a ceramics expert examining material from what is thought may be a theatre (perhaps predating the Roman era), alongside an architect, a photographer and a draftsperson. It is described as a “post-excavation research deal”, initially running for three years, perhaps to be extended thereafter. There is, I’m told, very little of the hippodrome architecture left, hence the requirement for a multi-specialist team to help the excavator figure it out. “Very sensible,” my source remarks.
A person closely connected with historical and archaeological research in Lebanon (sorry about all this anonymity) tells me: “We should be pleased that the site is now well-guarded. The original site in 1994 was used as a public toilet until Solidere put a fence around the entire Beirut Souks site. All has certainly not been destroyed by the building companies, and we should be wary of false bad publicity.”
I’m also told that Solidere has fifty large-scale, multilingual public noticeboards, printed (somehow?) on stone, ready to go up in the BCD explaining the history and archaeology of downtown Beirut.
It’s perhaps understandable that historians and archaeologists with an interest in Beirut resist criticism of Solidere – after all, work, funding and, perhaps, career prospects depend on maintaining good relations with the company. It’s also regrettably clear why nobody wants to put their name to any remarks, even positive ones.
Not everything Solidere does is bad.
But then again, I’d argue Beirut is clearly worse off for Solidere and what it has done over the last 20 years. A previous post by Battah, critical of Solidere, sparked much debate about the company. Prominent blogger Mustapha Hamoui gave this trenchant response, unnecessarily shielding, it seems to me, an opaque, grossly over-resourced, excessively powerful, profit-driven entity that has emasculated the BCD, simply because it’s not the only thing that’s bad about Beirut. True, it’s not. But, let’s face it, Solidere is a mighty big thing that’s mightily bad.
That said, though, with the impossibility of rooting the company out, I’d rather that it fenced off areas of historical interest to allow the archaeologists to work than, as has happened far too much already in Beirut, blithely bulldozes them for redevelopment.
The problem comes with, in Lama Bashour’s words, “this new photo fascism in Lebanon, where anyone with half an ounce of power orders you to stop taking photographs in public spaces.” That, perhaps, is the most telling takeaway from Habib Battah’s original, fascinating post.
But that’s a disease not confined to Lebanon…
For years, Israeli passport stamps have bedevilled “Western” tourists visiting the Middle East. It seems, though, that a new Israeli policy – apparently only just launched – could signal more freedom (for some) to move around the region.
[NOTE: All of this applies only to holders of "Western" passports who are exempt from applying for Israeli tourist visas (full list here). Citizens of other countries must apply, pay a fee and sometimes wait for official clearance. However, Israel is known to discriminate against Western tourists of Arab or Muslim origin at its points of entry, and also severely restricts the movement of Palestinians into and out of the West Bank and Gaza – they cannot use Tel Aviv airport, for instance. Hold that in mind as you read on...]
I explain the original problem in detail here.
In a nutshell, many Arab and Muslim countries refuse entry to people who show evidence of a visit to Israel. “Evidence” mostly means Israeli passport stamps, but it can also mean Egyptian or Jordanian stamps from the crossing-points into/out of Israel.
The ban means that, apart from Egypt, Jordan and Morocco – who don’t care – if your travels include almost any other country in the region you either have to construct a touring itinerary so you visit Israel last, or you have to do a complicated (and expensive) bit of backtracking through a certain border post where, thanks to a piece of bureaucratic doublethink, your passport usually remains free of stamps.
For years (decades!) Western travellers have meekly asked Israeli immigration officials not to stamp their passport, but – as has happened to me – officials have been known to cheerfully “forget” and bang a stamp in anyway. And then shrug. For me that’s not such a big deal. For someone, say, living in Dubai, such a stamp could mean separation from family, property and livelihood, and massive added expense and worry in obtaining a new passport and reconfirming immigration status.
I was just in Israel again – entering and leaving through Tel Aviv’s Ben Gurion Airport. I asked the official not to stamp my passport, but this time he told me there’s been a new policy in the last “couple of months” and they’ve stopped stamping passports altogether. Instead he quickly scanned my passport and issued me with this:
It’s the usual B2 tourist visa, but on an electronically printed slip of paper, which includes my name, nationality, photo (copied from my passport photo), date and so on. My thumb conceals a serial reference number and my passport number, and I’ve obscured the barcode. You’ll spot that Arabic, one of Israel’s official languages, is noticeably missing here.
This is the back of the slip:
There was no rubber-stamping at all. I kept the slip in my passport, and when I left the country the passport official returned it to me, again without stamping (she date-stamped my airline boarding card, that was all).
Is this a universal policy, or only at Ben Gurion airport? I don’t know, and I’ve not been able to source any official comment either way. The last time I passed through Israeli immigration was in December 2012, when I crossed the northern Jordan River bridge. Back then they were stamping – are they still doing so? Maybe someone could add a comment below to tell me.
And what happens if you are granted entry on a B2 visa, but with restrictions – excluded from PA areas, or restricted to PA only, or on a limited time validity (less than the standard 3 months)? Do they stamp then, or issue a printed slip? I don’t know.
If this turns out to be a universal policy, applied at every entry point, to every “Western” (i.e. visa-exempt) tourist, it opens up (for those people at least) the possibility of guaranteed free movement around the Middle East. You still need to be careful not to pick up tell-tale Egyptian and Jordanian exit/entry stamps, but if you know your passport will definitely remain clear of Israeli stamps, it’s one less thing to worry about on a complicated border-hopping tour through the region.
If anyone can shed more light, please feel free to add a comment.
UPDATE: It seems I was right, and there has been a policy change. One of the most experienced local travel companies, operating cross-border in Jordan and Palestine for many decades, has contacted me to point out a newly revised section on the website of one of their subsidiary firms. Their information corroborates my original post.
This overly optimistic local news piece from Jordan last December – based on this press release – seems to have been accurate. Jordan’s Arabic papers are reporting today that the lovely old Ottoman town of Salt, west of Amman, is about to get its first-ever hotel.
This can only be good. Anything that draws visitors off Jordan’s far-too-beaten tourist track is to be welcomed.
And Salt is lovely – historic, attractive, easygoing, almost completely untouristed. I introduce it here. You can find that gorgeous Ottoman architecture – balconies, pointed arches, stained glass, honeyed limestone – all over Palestine, Lebanon and Syria, but it’s a rarity in Jordan, which historically was a rural backwater, lacking urban sophistication – or, in truth, cities of any kind.
Indeed, Salt is just about the only place in Jordan to hold any sort of urban history extending back beyond the middle of last century. As such it has huge potential in tourism, but also in domestically-focused heritage – and so has had money lavished on it over the last few years from both the Japanese government (PDF from 2011) and the US government (article from 2011). That Japanese involvement is continuing: this (PDF Oct 2012) talks about an ongoing three-year project developing sustainable tourism in Salt.
Like I said, all good. Salt deserves a slice of the pie. I hope more Jordanians, as well as tourists, spend time in the place, walking its alleys, admiring its views, hearing its bells, climbing its hills, soaking up the atmosphere of its fine old Hammam Street souk. Just a little bit Jerusalem. A little bit.
As for the new hotel itself, named Saltos, I haven’t seen it. Check their Facebook and Twitter. But knowing the location – and reading that it has 23 rooms and “limited food and beverage offerings” – my guess is it’s a modest affair.
Modest is good. Jordan needs luxury tourism like a hole in the head.
A shade late (sorry about that), this is to say that the new edition of my Rough Guide to Jordan is now out, buyable anywhere in the world as a printed book (yay!) – ask for ISBN 978-14053-89792 – or downloadable as an e-book (boo!) here.
Rough Guides (in fact, the amazing Martin Dunford; how many careers have you launched, Martin?) commissioned me to write the first edition back in 1997. I spent three months in Amman that summer – and then moved to Jordan shortly afterwards. The first edition came out the following year, then another in 2002, then 2006, then 2009. Now 2013.
It’s been a constant 15-year process of updating and refining information, writing and rewriting accounts, expanding and clarifying maps and listings, and – I hope – shedding some light on the country and the region. It’s often been a battle with Rough Guides, but this is my book, and I love it.
And what a privilege to have the chance to travel Jordan in detail, over so many years – a place of spirit, beauty and profound human warmth. Jordan has changed my life. I will never be able to repay my debt of gratitude to this memorable place and its remarkable people.
I’m old-fashioned enough to think travel guides – proper travel guides written to be read, not Top 10s and bitty web content – can help bridge otherwise unbridgeable gaps. I only hope mine does.
But, naturally, there are horrible mistakes in it, and countless things that are already out of date. If you find any, have a look at this update list I’ve started to see if I’ve already picked it up. If not, please drop me a line.