Saturday, April 16, 2011

Sun hasn’t set on Egyptian tourism - Africa - IOL | Breaking News | South Africa News | World News | Sport | Business | Entertainment |

An excellent article on what it is really like in Egypt.

Sun hasn’t set on Egyptian tourism - Africa - IOL | Breaking News | South Africa News | World News | Sport | Business | Entertainment | "Trust me, there’s nothing romantic about the Red Sea. I realised this after unceremoniously being ushered off the top step of a ladder, which was attached to a glass-bottomed boat, and plopped bum first into the light blue and freezing waters of the Red Sea – snorkel and all. Before the water’s icy temperature hit I surfaced to the welcoming embrace of a choppy surface, a water-filled snorkel and flippers two sizes too big – so I thought I was drowning and panicked the bejeezus out of the guide who, to the smirks of the Russians on board, man-paddled me back to the steps. As I said, nothing romantic about the Red Sea.

In all fairness, though, the diving spot we were at, with its Mediterranean-coloured water and pretty coral reef, is quite the sight – from the inside of the glass boat, that is.

And that’s the thing about Egypt, it’s really not what you’d expect. It was obvious that the underlying reason for the trip was to see how stable the country is following what the locals are calling the “Revolution” – which was really the ousting of the country’s ruler, the demand for the rewriting (not amending) of the constitution, and the measures being put in place for an election in the coming months.

Let me then say that there’s a distinct feeling of exuberance, optimism and even relief among the people of Egypt, which I found from the historic city of Aswan all the way down the Nile to Luxor, resting place of the ancient kings.

From hotel staff and clubs in the party city of Hurghada to the cosmopolitan melting pot that is Cairo, the attitude seems the same: Egypt has been reborn for the people. There’s no feeling of agitation or violence – in fact, citizens are painting where they rioted, and in discussions over hookahs about a more unified and organised Egypt.

This is, according to most I spoke to, not just a country rich in culture but a country of wealth as well. The Suez Canal is its number one form of income, described on more than one occasion as a goose strong enough to lay a $500 monthly golden egg for every family in Egypt.
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Standing tall, after thousands of years, at Karnak temple in Luxor.


But the loss of tourists, seeing the chaotic visuals sensationalised across international television networks, has led to hundreds of millions of dollars in lost visitor revenue. And it shows.

For the record, let me say I saw not a single march or form of unrest anywhere in the country, and Tahrir Square, next to the famous Egyptian Museum, was at peace when I visited. The fruits of lost tourism can be seen in the faces of the market traders and the rickshaw drivers on the beaches.

Sad, really, as after the Suez Canal tourism is the country’s next biggest income generator.

The flip side of the coin, and perhaps this sounds selfish, was that we had the country to ourselves and for that I am a little grateful – when you see the infrastructure in place at some tourist spots you quickly realise how popular, and hectic, the attractions can become.

Our trip started in Aswan with a Nile cruise and yes, this is quite a romantic thing to do. But before I take one boat stroke further, let me clarify a key point that applies to every place we visited and stayed at – Egypt’s five star is about the same as our three, four at best.

And before you get all Queen Mary, the Nile cruise ships are generally around four to five storeys high, rooms all above water, and the top deck reserved for anundercover bar and dance area, and sun deck with pool and loungers.
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A resort in Hurghada on the Red Sea the meeting point for the glass-bottom boat cruise.


When you’re booking, try to find the ships that have cabin balconies. This is a plus as the banks of the Nile, with its sandy dunes in the background, are quite special to watch as you cruise by. Also bear in mind that Egypt is largely an alcohol-free country, so stock up at the airport – places that do serve the odd cocktail make News Cafe’s prices blush.

But the real advantage of the relaxed three-night cruise, which ends in Luxor (apparently only commercial ships are allowed further) is that, like the pharaohs, you stop along the banks to visit various temples. Our cruise ship, the MS Nile Odyssey, visited a temple each day after leaving Aswan (the Philae Temple dedicated to the goddess Isis and the Kom Ombo Temple worshipping the gods Horus and Sobek), followed by two temples in Luxor upon berthing. In Luxor we visited the Karnak and Luxor temples, the first of which is a mix of ruined temples, including the temple of Amun. The Luxor Temple was to worship the gods Amun, Mut and Chons.

As soon as you step into your first temple and your guide starts relating its importance in detail, you realise that Egypt’s not what you expected. I wanted to visit Egypt to see the “celebrities” – Tutankhamen, the mummies, the sphinx, the pyramids, the Nile. But Egyptology, you soon realise, is mind-numbingly complex, going back almost 5 000 years.

It’s difficult to soak up the entire ancient civilisation, its temples and art, and almost impossible to understand where everything “fits in”. My suggestion: enjoy it for what it is.

Each temple, in terms of location, artwork and significance, is unique, detailed, and ignites your imagination. Fascinating really. The other revelation was my expectation, somehow, that having so many temples would translate into a practising religion, when in fact it’s to the contrary. The country is mainly Christian and Muslim, the temples are more relics and historic than places of worship.

Think, then, of the smaller temples along the Nile as teasers of bigger things to come. The hard-hitter for me was the Valley of the Kings in Luxor. Now this is a majestic spot, where the kings were buried in mountainside tombs going deep into the earth. The depth depended on the length of a king’s rule, as digging started when kings were enthroned. A normal entry ticket provided entry into Ramses the first, fourth and ninth’s tomb, all which involved a walk down passages and declines lined with the most amazing handpainted artwork.

The highlight here was Tutankhamen’s tomb, for which you pay extra to enter, but is the only one with a mummy still in its place. It really is something, standing in his tomb, alone, with him encased in a glass, air-conditioned coffin alongside. All his treasures sit in the National Museum, but you know standing there that it’s sacred ground, meant never to be discovered. A guide showed me where to stand so I could see that the young king was flat-footed, and that the cranium of his neck had perished. You have to remind yourself you’re in the presence of a ruler of Egypt.

Taking a break from the gods and heading to coastal Hurghada was a welcome relief, even though it is 300km away.

Our taxi drivers are nothing compared to these kamikaze pilots – they drive at night with their lights either on dim or off. The car in front indicates when there’s a bend, and they drive three abreast when overtaking. Nerve-shattering stuff.

Hurghada is kilometres of Ibiza meets Umhlanga, complete with a Hard Rock Cafe, Buddha Bar, Ministry of Sound, and many themed hotels (the Aladdin one looked cool).

One way to do it is to find a place like we did, the Grand Hotel, which is all inclusive of meals and drinks. But areas such as the Marina have many wicked local restaurants (did I mention my new addiction to Turkish coffee?), so all-inclusive may not be first prize. The Grand Hotel is huge with a very cabana type feel, a few restaurants and plenty of coastline. Service was good and the atmosphere quite chilled. I’d go back. And activity wise there’s everything from deep sea diving to Jeep and quad safaris in the desert, all at negotiable and reasonable prices. The Red Sea is the diving capital of the world.

And then we hit Cairo, Egypt’s answer to Mumbai. The city has a buzz, with people on the go in every direction and amazing shopping markets. The under-R2-a-litre petrol price also means plenty of traffic.

Walk into the National Museum (there’s a new one being built on the outskirts) and you know it’s one of the greatest on the planet. It’s filled with relics and classified in different time periods. The highlights are the thousands of pieces from Tutankhamen’s tomb, including the famous mask made from solid gold and all the pieces meant to help him through his afterlife. And the Royal Mummies Hall (requiring an extra ticket) houses various rulers, including one of Egypt’s greatest, Ramses the second.

The pyramids, to be honest, were a bit of a letdown. You picture them to be huge and isolated somewhere in a desert, when today they sit on the outskirts of town. They’re also nowhere near as monumentally big as you imagined them to be – they are massive, but not majestically so. And all three are plagued by vendors who rarely give you a moment to soak up the splendour. But in between plastic pyramid and camel ride sellers, it’s hard not to marvel at what was built, and the skill it took. I highly recommend a walk inside a pyramid – we did in the smallest, and it’s here that you’re free of the vendors. The sphinx, next to the pyramids, is currently having a bit of plastic surgery done to its neck, but with the pyramids as a background it is still something to look at.

Also, make sure to indulge in the many crafts unique to Egypt. Go and watch real papyrus being made and have it painted in something you like, watch them blow glass into fancy bottles, have a pendant orT-shirt made with your name in hieroglyphics, or splash out on vases or dishes handmade from alabaster stone (found near the Valley of the Kings) – the pharaohs had these in their tombs.

Egyptian food is also amazing. I had not a single bad meal. Indulge in tahini, kofta, falafel and shwarma to your heart’s content.

Also make sure you visit a perfume house and get a bottle of Five Secret and Ramsses, otherwise known as Chanel No 5 and Givenchy Amarige – I was told many perfume houses get their scent bases from Egyptian essence makers. And the last tip – do the Red Sea after Cairo, it makes more sense to relax then.

Travel restrictions to Egypt have been lifted by the US government, which is known to err on the cautious side in these matters.

Tourists in Egypt are raving about the absence of the usual large crowds and the excellent and courteous service received from the enthusiastic tourism industry as they work to re-establish their country as a top holiday destination worldwide.

It is widely reported that no tourists were targeted or hurt during the recent demonstrations, which is a clear message of the importance of tourism to all Egyptians. There could be no better time than right now to visit Egypt.

- Sent using Google Toolbar"

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