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Is Egypt safe for tourists?

8 May 2013

Pyramid19CDatePalms[UPDATE - 3 July 2013: Since May, when I wrote this post, the situation in Egypt has changed for the worse. However, I'm not providing updated info on this page. Read on for a general overview of travel safety in Egypt, but also follow the news, ask travel companies and check your governmental travel advisory for up-to-date guidance. And/or follow me on Twitter @matthewteller]

I’m just back from 3 weeks in Egypt – and yes, the country is safe for tourists.

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

tahriratnightMost 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

cairofeluccaBut Tahrir is a tiny part of a giant city. It gets too much attention. This blog post, for instance. Elsewhere, normality reigns.

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.

44 Comments leave one →
  1. 8 May 2013 2.27pm

    Thanks for this great update Matthew. Exactly the kind of thing that smart, informed travel reporting should aspire to.

  2. 8 May 2013 3.13pm

    Much appreciated, Paul.

  3. 8 May 2013 4.22pm

    I’ve just received this email, which I’m passing on here (anonymously) for interest’s sake. It runs:

    Dear Mathew,

    I am an Egyptian American and I read your article about whether Egypt is safe or not. I disagree with your conclusion.

    Egypt has become now an uncivilized society. Men, regardless of age, prey on women. They are sexually starved and display that disgusting and vile behavior specifically on tourists. No one is spared. There is zero accountability and zero consequences.

    I encourage to read an article written by Ash Clark about his experience in Egypt just a few days ago. His experience reflects the real Egypt that everyone is familiar with.

    Remember what happend to CNN’s Lara Logan in Tahrir square a few years ago? It continues to happen everyday. [Logan actually worked for CBS.)

    The people who read your article will think Egypt is safe and in reality it is not. When they go they will be molested and it will reflect on you.

    And by-the-way, I am a male in his 50′s and what I see happening in Egypt is repulsive, disgusting and uncivilized.

    I am ashamed of my roots.

    That’s painful to read, but I’ve heard others express similar opinions. I’ve written elsewhere about how the lack of accountability in Egypt is a real problem. It stems, I would suggest, from decades of dictatorship, which preferred to impoverish and infantilise an entire population rather than invest, inspire or improve. I only hope the Egyptian people can put dictatorship behind them and find a way through to a better future.

  4. 8 May 2013 6.56pm

    I did the same circuit in Feb. Yes, Egypt is ‘safe’. I had no issues. However I really don’t think it’s safe for independent female travellers. That’s just a bad idea. Also the street harassment by touts is reaching epic levels to the point where it absolutely ruined my opinion of Luxor and Aswan. I really don’t recommend Egypt, I think Egyptians have a bad attitude towards foreigners and I didn’t enjoy my vacation there, and I know many other backpackers didn’t as well. There are so many other wonderful places to visit in Africa, why bother with this tourist trap. Stay away!

  5. 8 May 2013 7.06pm

    Hi Matthew,

    Informed and apposite stuff as ever.

    I stayed on Sharia Talaat Harb, a couple of blocks down from Tahrir, in March. I have blue eyes, palid skin, speak as much Arabic as a three-year-old Labrador, and don’t have the genes for convincing facial hair, but I was careful to ‘have my head screwed on’ and wore the right shirt – you are so right about the buttons!

    I’d agree that the density of chancers and ne’er do wells in Cairo has increased, particularly close to Tahrir. Adding to the old hand hornswogglers is a percentage of increasingly desperate individuals who’ve arrived in Cairo looking for work – a city that already seems to have high rates of youth unemployment.

    That said, in my wanderings across the square I was abused only once, by an eight year old boy, who for effect determinedly told me to ‘Fuck Oof’. Others brought me tea, showed me around the various tented camps and interpreted signs.

    I didn’t have any problems, and I visited at night a couple of times too. However, I was wary. My gut feeling, which I’ve increasingly learnt to trust, suggested the area was volatile and had the potential to become very uncomfortable very quickly – again, as you suggest, particularly with the presence of weekend/Friday crowds.

    The Tahrir protests too drew a mixed response from Cairenes I met in the vicinty – some were supportive others,as you state, were just fed up with the ensuing traffic chaos and characterised many of the paticipants as ‘kids with nothing better to do than throw rocks.’

    Though it’s close to Tahrir I really like the area around Talaat Harb. It’s downtown, it’s busy, has great cafes and though the grandeur of its French architecture is partially hidden – by the black sticky grime that covers everything in Cairo if it stays still too long – it’s the kind of shabby chic Cairo that appeals. I’m no Kate Adie but I’d certainly stay there again on my next trip and would say it’s safe enough for travellers who at least look like they know where they’re going – even though they might not.

    Best,

    N

  6. 8 May 2013 7.32pm

    Reblogged this on Egypt Tourism Board and commented:
    Yes its safe for Tourists

  7. 8 May 2013 7.43pm

    Great post. I was in Cairo and Aswan in February and everything you say is accurate. I did go to one protest briefly (a woman’s protest) near Tahrir Square at night, but I was with my Egyptian friends and I only stayed for a few minutes to take photos for one of my reports. Aswan was wonderful and seemed to be the most peaceful area of Egypt. A roundup of my reports are here:

    http://confessionsvelvetropes.typepad.com/my_weblog/2013/04/egypt-february-2013.html

  8. 8 May 2013 7.46pm

    We are those lucky travellers you linked to above. Thanks by the way.. I can say honestly that in the three weeks my wife and I backpacked through Egypt, we never feared for our safety once. We spent a lot of time walking around Cairo and Alexandria without trouble, including Tharir Square. That doesn’t mean it wasn’t frustrating as all hell. My wife had to put up with a lot of sexual harassment, especially on trains and subways, and I never left her side. I can only imagine what a solo female traveller would have to put up with.

    As others have said, don’t avoid Egypt for fear of personal safety. Avoid it because the touts are unbearable. If you want to see Egypt. I highly recommend booking an all inclusive tour. It’ll be worth the extra money just to keep the touts at bay.

  9. 8 May 2013 8.09pm

    I agree with your article and your advice – pretty much along the lines of my own blog. As for your anonymous letter…..there are few absolutes in any country, yes Egypt has a rising crime rate – but rising, as you say from a very low starting point. Yes the harrassment is bad.

    What you feel and experience depends to a large degree on where your focus usually lies and if you are looking for the world to be against you then so it is – law of attraction :-) But speaking of attraction – if tourists come to Egypt expecting to see the wonders of the ancient world, enjoy good food, meet nice people (apart from the touts) then that is exactly what they find.

    It does pay off these days more than before if tourists plan ahead, know the areas they are staying in and book reliable guides and transport – then it is unlikely they will see or experience much hassle or even discomfort. It depends very much on the planning and the people.

    Sure there is turmoil here – I’ve lived here over 10 years now and can see that in the eyes of the majority of people the government by the MB is not much different from the previous regime, the British occupation, the war years, or even the invasions from the East way back in history. They get on with their daily life and those at the top make a brief appearance, create some chaos in their thirst for power, but all eventually disappear and are replaced. They have a saying in Egypt about the various attempts throughout history to “rule” them – “Egypt swallows them up!” ‘them’ being those who think they rule them :-) Sure it takes a few years but the pattern always repeats. Egyptians remain Egyptian despite all attempts to change or dominate them. So these “troubled times” shall also pass. In the meantime Egypt is still one of the safest places on Earth for sensible tourists!

  10. 9 May 2013 9.07am

    Thank you, everyone, for some fine and wise comments. I only want to add one thing. It seems important for visitors to differentiate between people trying to sell you things and people abusing you, even though both might feel like the same kind of hassle at the time.

    Sexual harassment is (or should be) a crime. I’ve got no clever ideas about how to deal with it, or combat it. You could, perhaps, learn a few choice insults in Arabic to throw back at your abuser, if only for the sense of satisfaction of responding in kind. Or you could ignore it at the time, and then offer support to groups like OpAntiSH
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Operation_Anti_Sexual_Harassment
    and Tahrir Bodyguard
    http://edition.cnn.com/2013/03/05/world/meast/tahrir-bodyguard-egypt-assaults
    with publicity and, if you can, money after you get home.

    If sexual harassment goes beyond the verbal, of course, it becomes a police matter.

    Vendors in the street trying to sell you things, though, is an entirely different thing. People seem to get amazingly hot under the collar, moaning that it’s utterly intolerable, it ruined their holiday, the only way to deal with it is to shout rudely and shove people out of the way, and so on.

    Some perspective: Westerners have been grumbling about Egyptian vendors for at least the last 200 years. In short, get over it.

    There is a basic economic imbalance at play here. If you can’t see that, you shouldn’t be allowed out. Your $1 can have a disproportionately large impact in Egypt. But still, it’s up to you. Buy, or don’t buy. Walk on, or stop to talk. Learn two or three words of Arabic (beyond “la shukran” that is) to defuse some of the attention. In other words, if vendors make you uncomfortable, take control of the situation. Not by shouting, waving your arms around and calling people names; all that does is make you cross. Rather, by accepting the inevitable and making the best of it. Talk, smile, laugh, be firm but respectful – come ON, people, you’re not little kids, you don’t need life lessons in how to deal with people. Do you?

  11. 9 May 2013 9.43am

    Re: The touting thing. There are basically two ways of dealing with it.

    1. It’s Egypt. It happens. Put up with it.
    2. I hate being aggressively touted on an almost continual basis. If that’s basically what I’ll get in Egypt, then there are plenty of other parts of the world I can go to where I won’t have to put up with it.

    And so, for me at least, Egypt plummets down my list of preferred holiday destinations. The rest of it isn’t appealing enough to override my dislike of being continually hassled. I might still go to Egypt at some point, and when I do, I’ll be braced for that onslaught of sales pitches. But there are other places I’d prefer to explore first.

  12. Andrew Reid permalink
    9 May 2013 10.53am

    Hi Matthew,
    I’m an Aussie expat who’s been living here in Cairo for 7 years.
    Just in terms of your Sinai comments, there have been kidnappings of tourists on the Suez-Sharm road, the Sharm-St Catherine’s road and the Sharm-Dahab-Taba road within the past year. The Bedouin kidnap tourists to exchange them for members of their tribe or family currently in prison. They are usually released within 48 hours and treated well, but a kidnapping is hardly going to make for a great holiday.
    My family is usually pretty chilled out about security stuff, but in the Sinai we would only fly to Sharm and stay there at the moment. I would possibly travel overland on a big bus, but not cars or mini-buses.
    Andrew

  13. 9 May 2013 11.27am

    And sometimes the touts have things you really want to buy. We sat outside at al Fishawy in Cairo where, of course, you are constantly approached by touts, especially children. I bought a beautiful copy of the Qur’an with a gorgeous tooled leather cover and gilt edges. The Egyptians are just trying to make a living and because of the drop in tourism, they have to be even more aggressive to make a few bucks.

  14. 9 May 2013 11.36am

    @David – a fair and interesting perspective. However, that relies on the supposition that you will be “continually hassled” and “aggressively touted on an almost continual basis”. I don’t think that will happen. Or, rather, it doesn’t happen to me, and I’m honestly a bit flummoxed as to how it happens to other people. I see touts at touristy places, I get approached, I show I’m not interested, they go away. Maybe I’m some kind of Buddhic repository of divine wisdom and patience, but how that could possibly ruin a holiday, I simply don’t understand.

    Maybe it’s about expectation. Perhaps people expect to move around Egypt in a bubble of silent contemplation and historical wonder. Or perhaps people expect a High Street like at home, where the shopkeepers stay indoors behind the till and never come out. I honestly don’t know.

    To me, it’s half a dozen guys with a fistful of cheap tat testing the reality of trickle-down economics, while always being ready with a joke and a smile. It’s funny and interesting. To others, it seems the same scenario counts as an “aggressive onslaught”. I don’t get it.

    And frankly, I’d take Egypt’s personal approach any day, over the hideously commercial passive-aggressiveness of European tourist sites, which force you to navigate a path through the ever-so-charming and delicately scented gift shop to get out of the darn place.

  15. 9 May 2013 11.37am

    @Andrew – many thanks. Yes, I’m aware of that, which is why I raised the issue. Like you, I would consider my form of transport carefully.

  16. 9 May 2013 11.38am

    @Glenn – yep, that too.

  17. 9 May 2013 11.48am

    As a woman I find Egypt exhausting and stressful I’ve been manhandled and aggressively approached several times, and I’m trained in self defence so I’m not a weak willed lady! ( I should mention in SOME places and sometimes) but Egypt always draws me back. I usually take a mental deep breath when the plane lands and then just get on with it. Both points you’ve addressed Matthew, always enjoy your balanced approach. Realistically if you want limited hassle then don’t go. I personally prefer the culture to say Europe or USA but each to their own and only thing worse than someone being terrified to leave their tiny patch of the earth is people ridiculing those who only like the slightly drier destinations. There is too much of this “I went to XXX and ignored advice and went out alone and was fine” = security. It does not. But once again I think you are always balanced and your love for M.East infectious

  18. alif sikkiin permalink
    9 May 2013 2.54pm

    I enjoyed this post, and I agree that Egypt is generally safe. But as someone who’s lived here for over four years off-and-on since 1996, I’m mystified by this: “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.” What are you basing this on? It’s flatly contradicted by the details of the Semiramis incident, which you link to in your post. The scary thing about the attack on the Semiramis (a five-star hotel!) is that the staff were frantically trying to get the police to do something and had to resort to Twitter of all things in order to get help.

    And one of the features of post-revolution life is that some on the police payrolls don’t show up for work at all. Diminished police presence + poor street lighting results in an increased opportunities for crime.

    I wrote a longer response on my own blog: http://daggeraleph.wordpress.com/2013/05/09/is-egypt-safe-for-tourists/

  19. alif sikkiin permalink
    9 May 2013 3.15pm

    Oh, and on touts: Yes, people are always trying to sell you stuff, that’s a given, and people who just complain about *that* need to chill. But the problem I had on a recent trip to Upper Egypt is that on two separate occasions my friend and I agreed on a price for transportation in advance (taxi in one case, felucca in another) and then at the end argued with us about the size of the “tip,” because they wanted almost double the agreed-upon price. And when we defended the size of our original tip we got all manner of guilt-inducing sob stories about why we needed to give more. It wasn’t a business transaction, it was begging, and it left a bad taste in our mouths.

    The same friend, when he went to the pyramids, hired a horse. The horse guys took him far from the pyramids to a perfume shop, and wouldn’t let him back on the horse until he bought something. They were unmoved by protestations that he didn’t have the money, and when that didn’t work, that he didn’t want any perfume. This friend is not a rube, by the way, and is Tunisian and speaks Arabic.

    And while there’s nothing wrong with being approached by sellers, there’s something wrong with having items physically shoved on you, or being verbally abused when you say you don’t want to buy, both of which have happened to friends of mine.

  20. 9 May 2013 3.26pm

    Really good to read a thoughful and balanced view of the current situation. Friends have just returned from Egypt and were delighted to find it was so easy to view the sites and overwhelmed with the friendliness of everyone, obviously pleased to see any tourists now. I do hope lots of people read this ans use their common sense to have an enjoyable holiday in a uniquely fascinating country.

  21. 9 May 2013 3.46pm

    @sburn – thank you for that, much appreciated. Ditto @quirky, always lovely to hear from you, Zoe.

    @alif – many thanks for stopping by. I’ve replied to your post on your own blog, so won’t repeat here.

    On touts, though, I’m afraid that sort of stuff has been going on for (literally) centuries. I’ve heard similar accounts about horses at the Pyramids. And I’ve had stuff shoved at me. And I’ve been verbally abused when I don’t want to buy. Without wanting to appear callous, so what? I’ve been verbally abused in my local park by an old man feeding the birds. And I’ve had people hassle me for money or to buy magazines on the streets of London. Are there larger lessons to learn from those too? Should I warn people away from London?

    Thinking aloud, I wonder what’s really going on here. Is it that some people on holiday desperately want their experience to be perfect on their terms – perhaps because they’ve paid for it, or because it feels super-special to them, their one big adventure of the year? Then, when their high expectations aren’t met, for whatever reason, is their disappointment so great it turns to anger? Petulant anger? And spitefulness? So much so that they hate everything about that country and its people, and call it unsafe, and vow never to return, and tell all their friends not to go too?

    What do you think?

  22. 9 May 2013 4.11pm

    In a park at home in London, you feel comfortable, on a good footing. In Egypt, many people feel like they’re just barely maintaining an equilibrium, and the touts make it clear they’re outsiders–they think the touts wouldn’t do this to them if they were locals, or looked like locals. It’s easy to slip from feeling like you’re in control to feeling like a victim if you’re besieged by guys waving papyrus. Also, like you say, I think it ruins people’s idea that they’re coming for cultural exchange, if they’re approached first and foremost as customers in a commercial transaction.

    In late 2011, I was at the Pyramids in Giza, and for the first time, I saw groups of Egyptians visiting. And guess what? They were totally getting accosted by touts and camel guys, and I even saw one Egyptian dad lose his sh*t and yell at one of the souvenir pushers.

    In the LP guide, I tried to give people a ton of mental prep for this. It’s important to remember this is these touts’ jobs, and they don’t have another one, and they’re not going to stop just because you look somehow ‘cooler’ (or more Egyptian!) than other tourists.

    Also, the absolutely *great* thing about Egypt is that these guys may be insanely pushy, but for the most part, they still actually just like talking to strangers, and it *is* a chance to talk to locals and have a real exchange. So, you might then feel obliged to buy some fake papyrus. Enh, big deal.

    Again, as you’ve said, a joke and a smile is really surprisingly effective. I think it works primarily on your own self, though: you’re treating the tout as an equal instead of an underling, which makes you feel better about the situation, and you’re doing that forced-laughing-yoga thing where you actually make yourself more cheerful in the process.

    Sign me ‘Pollyanna in Cairo’!

  23. 9 May 2013 4.16pm

    The other mental trick that helps me deal with the commercial onslaught in Egypt is taking the super-long historical view. In Max Rodenbeck’s great book about Cairo, he mentions a story about the king of Mali passing through in, oh I don’t know, the 13th century, and all the Cairo shopkeepers bragging to each other about how they fleeced the guy.

    Up till then, I think I had kind of assumed the touts were picking on *me*, because I looked weaker than everyone else somehow. But after I read this, I figured if it was good enough for the king of Mali, it was good enough for me…

  24. 9 May 2013 5.07pm

    One person’s interpretation of ‘safe’ is entirely different from the next. I think how comfortable you feel somewhere like Egypt depends on a variety of factors – personality, previous experience of similar environments, expectation and prior research, and willingness or ability to engage assertively with those around you.

    I’ve just come back from a trip to Italy with a friend I’ve known for years (we’re both female) and I was astounded by her reaction to street sellers. We walked through Messina, where there were the usual handbag/sunglasses/scarf/jewellery sellers, mostly just standing on the street. A few approached us – I did what I usually do as a first line of avoidance, which is to smile, shake my head and walk purposefully on. None came too close or touched me.

    My friend tried to do the same but seemed to have trouble shaking a couple of persistent taxi drivers who wanted to take us on a tour. Even so, they were not aggressive in any way and gave in gracefully when I said we wanted to walk. I was therefore really surprised to find my friend felt shaky and wanted to leave. After all, this was just people trying to sell us stuff.

    The anger and spitefulness you mention above then came out. She said a few things that made me wonder if I could continue the trip with her – after all, most street sellers are near the bottom of the pile in society and to my mind deserve sympathy and patience, even (perhaps especially) if you don’t buy anything.

    However, I realised that her reaction stemmed from genuine fear. Despite my twitter handle, I am not at all afraid of creating a scene in public if someone is really hassling me, particularly in broad daylight in a tourist area. But my friend genuinely hates drawing attention to herself or raising her voice and lives in fear that she may have to do just that. The thought of having to do it when she is not in a familiar place really preys on her mind and so every encounter was, to her, a potential ‘scene’.

    I was a little impatient – it was Italy, for goodness’ sake, hardly the world’s most threatening environment – but I also felt some sympathy. I remembered my first time in a souk and the fears I’d had. They were mostly irrational, but they felt very real, and made me behave like a petulant cow. (Needless to say, I shall not be taking my friend to Egypt.)

  25. alif sikkiin permalink
    9 May 2013 5.24pm

    These are really interesting questions. Here are some of my thoughts:

    1. Firstly, it’s not just foreign tourists: A number of my Egyptian friends also dislike the Pyramids, Luxor, etc., even though they get a fraction of the hassle. And when they hear about things that sometimes happen to tourists there, they are often outraged and embarrassed.

    2. I’m racking my brain to think of a time when someone in other cities I’ve lived in verbally abused me for not buying something or physically pushed something on me. And I’ve traveled very widely in the Middle East and Africa and the only place I can think of where the touts were as unpleasant was Fes, Morocco (and it was much worse than anywhere in Egypt, and yeah, it’s probably not high on my list of places to return to). It’s certainly not universal behavior to shove things at people and verbally abuse them. If it were, I might be quicker to tell people to be thicker-skinned. I think people anywhere in the world, regardless of whether or not they’re on vacation and regardless of whether or not they’ve spent a lot of money, are entitled to basic respect. Egypt’s not the only beautiful country in the world, and someone is likely to have better interactions with people elsewhere, why *should* they bother coming here?

    3. You ask the question, “so what? I’ve been verbally abused in my local park by an old man feeding the birds.” We’re human beings, we live in society, we don’t like people to verbally abuse us. It makes us feel yucky, and I don’t think anything about that needs explaining, really.

    4. What’s extra-super-annoying about the hassle (from the perspective of someone who lives here and loves the country, for all its faults) is that it’s self-defeating, because it prevents people from returning. I don’t think the attitude of the commenter above saying “if you can’t handle the hassle, stay home” is right. If we care about Egypt we should want it to do well, and we should want tourism to be healthy. When I first came here in 1996, the first two weeks of my trip would not have prompted me to return. But I had a job here and I stayed, and the longer I stayed the more I grew to love it. It’s sad that people who come for tourism rarely get to see the Egypt that I know.

    5. And of course, tourists are not always blameless. I’ve seen my share of insensitive and entitled behavior, and sometimes after some bad experiences even initially well-meaning people get worn down and contribute to a vicious circle of cranky interactions, and it’s bad vibes all around. And of course, as we were agreeing on my blog, a lot of the current pathologies of the Egyptian tourism industry are the result of a very narrow vision of tourism pushed by a dictatorship for decades. So it’s a shame that tourists sometimes draw the conclusion that the country as a whole sucks and the people are all bad (“they hate everything about that country and its people, and call it unsafe, and vow never to return, and tell all their friends not to go too”). We like to think travel broadens the horizons and imparts a deeper understanding, but sometimes it just confirms prejudices.

    Thanks for raising the questions.

  26. 9 May 2013 5.32pm

    That’s a great story, Kate! And your last note, about when you were first in a souk, is a good reminder. The thing about irrational fears is that once you’re past them, it’s almost impossible to imagine having had them, because…well, they seem so crazy.

    I can barely remember the feeling I had upon arriving in the Yucatan, in Mexico, the first time, after I’d been lying awake worried that I’d get attacked by highway bandits or something. It’s comical how far off the mark that was–I just stood in the bus station in Cancun and laughed at myself for a little while, after realizing I did not actually have to clutch my luggage desperately to my chest, and I had arrived in probably one of the sweetest places in the Americas.

    And back to Egypt, there’s a fantastic scene in Rosemary Mahoney’s book “Down the Nile,” in which she rowed by herself down the river, where she describes this exact irrational thinking. A man rows up to where she’s camped, and she’s *sure* he’s come to attack her. Of course he hasn’t, but her description and self-awareness is incredibly acute–it’s a more dramatic version of what many people may be thinking when they go through the tout gauntlet.

    It makes me wonder if tourists are reacting worse to touts these days than in pre-revolution times, precisely because their pre-trip period is filled with so much more ‘Oh, geez, is it really safe? What am I getting myself into?’ anxiety, and probably all their friends telling them they’re crazy to go. So when they get off the plane, they’re totally worked up and jumpy.

  27. 9 May 2013 9.25pm

    I would leave Cairo out. Luxor and Aswan are alright, always have been even during the revolution. Luxor and Aswan is like being in the country, different people and mentality. Very friendly. But just like many other places in the world, you do need to be security conscious and just to be careful and wise in mind. Times in this country are indeed hard and only a small amount of people cause any problems. You should experience a good time here on holiday and take back with you some great memories.

  28. 9 May 2013 9.58pm

    Missed most of this debate, but in response to @matthew… The worst hassle factor I’ve encountered is in Marrakesh (although to varying degrees I’ve found it bad in Bali, Gambia, Las Vegas, European tourist traps etc). I’ve never been to Egypt, so I’ve no idea how ‘bad’ it is either historically or currently.

    But from all accounts I’ve heard, it’s far worse in Egypt (not specifically stated where in Egypt, admittedly, and India than in Marrakesh). That’s not an attractive proposition to me. Others may be fine with it, but I don’t like it. And whether that reflects more on me or the Egyptian culture, I frankly don’t care. It puts Egypt down a few notches in the list of places I want to visit in the same way that being malarial, or being really expensive, or having poor transport infrastructure, or having ludicrously over-bureaucratic visa procedures would do.

    As for what constitutes “aggressive” (probably the wrong word – I mean uncomfortably persistent), I’d say it’s anyone who keeps trying on an unsolicited approach after an initial “no thank you”. Get that regularly throughout the day, and it doesn’t ruin a holiday – but it does become exhausting and unpleasant. For me anyway.

    It’s easy to dismiss this as a cultural difference, but if the locals get annoyed by it too (and I’m pretty sure most of them would do), then perhaps the “cultural difference” needs to be addressed. Justified or not, Egypt has a reputation for some of the most in-your-face, constantly discomforting touting in the world. A million and one entirely justifiable explanations why it happens won’t alter the fact that it doesn’t do the tourism industry any good.

  29. Ava permalink
    11 May 2013 1.32am

    Hi there! Here is some things I’d like to say to you guys. I’m a Spanish 17 year old girl who has been living in Egypt since I was 8. Of course after I said Spanish you guys probably think I fit in pretty well as an Egyptian. Well you thought wrong, I have green eyes, blonde hair and pale skin. I have been harrassed in Egypt and sometimes I get really scared walking in the streets late at night. But here’s a tip, be smart! I see tourists who act as if they’re in Paris or London, which is beyond stupid. Tourists need to learn about their surroundings and act as if they know everything. Something that I read in the comments that pissed me off is that Egyptians hate tourists. Egyptians are literally the nicest people you can ever meet, they will treat you like family and do you favors without expecting anything for return. With that being said the people are hurting they just came out of from the hands of a dictatorship to the rule of the MB which they don’t want. You can understand them feeling bad for their country when their economy is shit and they can never find gas available so they can drive through the unbearable traffic. So the people of egypt might not be all smiles seeing a tourist around. The only problem you will face is that they will take advantage of tourists because they think that the tourists are stupid so you need to act smart. So if your in a bazaar and a small ceramic statue ask him for the real price and tell him you’re not stupid. Cairo is my home and I enjoy my life here more than I do in Barcelona. It saddens me that I’m leaving Cairo next year to attend university in England. But atleast I had great memories that I will cherish. Wow that was a big rant and I got a bit of topic there. Oh my god I’m still rambling on like an idiot someone has to stop me, bottom line Egypt is safe! Just be smart.

  30. 11 May 2013 9.48am

    Matthew I agree, it depends on your perspective. I’m a young female and although I got sexual innuendo and touts in Egypt, it seemed to be tongue-in-cheek and all a bit of fun. You just engage in a bit of banter with them (my dad was joking with them about selling me for cows), be polite in your rejecting, and as long as you’ve given them some acknowledgement then you’re good to go. I found it more funny and interesting than anything else and I prefer the personal up-for-a-laugh smiley approach than the horrid UK customer service any day…

  31. Carole Hawley permalink
    11 May 2013 2.42pm

    I’ve just returned from a weeks cruise down the Nile and had a fantastic time. The service on the boat was brilliant and the local villagers along the Nile were very friendly. It is a shame though that the touts do hassle people so aggressively. It stopped us going off the boat to explore and shop during our free time because we were constantly hounded and they do not take no for an answer unless you get cross. Many times we all wanted to browse and perhaps buy things but they do not even allow you to look. If they backed off people would spend so much more. Yes they are desperate because tourist numbers are down but somebody needs to advise them as to how tourists like to shop and then their earnings would increase.

  32. 13 May 2013 12.55pm

    Thanks for finally writing about >Is Egypt safe for tourists?
    | Quite Alone <Liked it!

  33. 21 May 2013 5.30pm

    Thank you, everyone. Fascinating comments – it’s always good to hear first-person feedback. More, please!

  34. Sylvie permalink
    26 May 2013 9.27am

    As a women travelling alone, i just come back from Sinai, where i stayed 3 mlonths. No risk between St Catherin and Sharm or Dahab, I did this way around 7 times,…Sina is suffering also from the propaganda of medias who doesnt scare to lie, but who’s ready to transform a simple car’s accident as a terrorist act….
    Travell to the beautiful Sina in peace!!!!! No worry!!!!

  35. 24 June 2013 2.16pm

    I hope it gets safe soon as I would love to take my kids there. The place looks amazing and of course it is full of such a rich history.

  36. Jonah permalink
    30 June 2013 9.16pm

    Thanks for the advice

  37. 7 August 2013 2.42pm

    when we were in Port Said about last year, there were police escorting the tour buses. i don’t know for now if tourists are still eager to visit Egypt especially considering the political chaos happening

  38. 4 November 2013 3.24am

    Safety for travelers should not only be in terms of physical safety. That should include harassment and fooling. Unfortunately, I believe we are quite short of our goal.

  39. 7 November 2013 6.04pm

    Reblogged this on 1Life 196Countries and commented:
    Matthew Teller gives travelers some practical advice regarding the safety of travel in Egypt.

  40. 10 June 2014 8.27pm

    If you are planning to go to EGYPT to pass the holidays then you must need to take the help of travel guide.as it is many in EGYPT

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  1. Is it safe to go to Egypt?
  2. On peut voyager en toute sécurité...
  3. Egypt travel safety 2013Travel with Kat
  4. Is Egypt safe for tourists? | Dagger Aleph

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