- After years of instability, tourists are starting to come back to Egypt, a country that was once one of the premier destinations in the world, with gorgeous beaches, breathtaking desert landscapes, and, arguably, the greatest collection of ruins, temples, and artifacts in the world.
- I decided to make the trip to Egypt this year after dreaming of visiting since I was a kid.
- While the historical sights and scenery lived up to expectations, I found myself constantly frustrated by the feeling that I’d been taken advantage of by guides, that tour operators were cutting corners, or that people were outright lying to me.
It had long been a dream of mine to visit Egypt.
Sitting on the Mediterranean, the country is blessed with gorgeous beaches, breathtaking desert landscapes, a pleasant and warm winter climate, and, arguably, the greatest collection of ruins, temples, and artifacts in the world.
But after the 2011 Arab Spring revolution, the country seemed unstable and unsafe. Political turmoil, violence, and terror attacks put a visit to Egypt on the back burner for me. I wasn’t the only one.
In 2010, Egypt attracted 14.7 million visitors, the tourism industry employed about 12% of the country’s workforce and made up 10% of its GDP. In 2011, the year of the revolution, that number dropped to 10 million. By 2014, revenue for Egypt’s top tourist sites had dropped 95% from 2011, numbers so low the government speculated it might not be able to keep the sites open.
Eight years on, the revolution has given way to a tenuous stability enforced by the quasi-democratic strongman presidency of Abdel Fattah el-Sisi. It has also led to the jailing of dozens of journalists and activists, as well as occasional terror-related incidents in Sinai, outside Cairo, and on the western border with Libya.
Last year, tourism started to bounce back. With the Egyptian pound trading with the dollar at 17 to 1, those in the industry and the government are optimistic the industry is back on the upswing.
With all that in mind, I decided to make the trip to Egypt this winter.
Egypt is a beautiful, interesting, and frustrating place to visit
For the most part, it was enthralling.
Visiting the Pyramids of Giza was awe-inspiring as I’d hoped. Luxor and Karnak temples, the country’s most famous ancient sites, were well-kept and tightly managed. The tomb paintings in the Valley of the Kings – rich with yellows, blues, and reds from thousands of years ago – left my jaw on the floor.
And yet, I couldn’t wait to leave.
By the day of my flight out, I was exhausted and frustrated. Dozens of tourists I met over my one month in the country expressed a similar feeling. The same joke was made repeatedly: “I love the Egypt of thousands of years ago, but I can’t stand Egypt today.”
Nearly every tourist I spoke to was referring to the same issue. Throughout his or her trip, they’d felt taken advantage of by guides, had tours where operators cut corners, or were outright lied to.
Such issues do not happen only in Egypt. But the frequency with which I – and others I spoke with – experienced these issues made me think it was more than my isolated experience or a few bad apples.
I was constantly arguing to get things I’d already paid for
Let me walk you through one of the dozen experiences that happened to me while in Egypt.
I travelled to upper Egypt for a five-day tour to all the major sites in the region and a cruise up the Nile. I normally don’t take tours, preferring to explore on my own. But Egypt’s lack of infrastructure makes tours the easiest way to see the country – even for seasoned backpackers – and put money in the hands of regular Egyptians.
The tour started off ominously when I arrived in Aswan, a small town that serves as a jumping off point. My local guide started the tour of the nearby Philae temple five hours later than scheduled so he could add an additional traveller to our tour after their late arrival, leaving us with less than an hour to see the temple before it closed.
The following day, I woke up at 4 a.m. to drive four hours with a different guide to the Abu Simbel temples near the border with Sudan. When we got there, we were told we’d have only an hour to see it, rather than two hours that were promised. The tour group argued until the guide relented.
I’d woken up at 4 a.m. for that tour so we could drive back to Aswan in time to catch my Nile cruise ship before it set sail that afternoon. When we got back, another guide checked me into the cruise ship and reiterated that the ship would leave shortly after lunch, so we could see Kom Ombo Temple that evening.
I went downstairs, had lunch, and then went to my room to relax while the boat sailed. An hour passed, then two, and then three. The sun was setting, and the boat still hadn’t left.
In the lobby, I asked the cruise-ship director why we hadn’t sailed. He looked at me, confused. “We don’t sail on Wednesdays. We sail on Thursdays,” he said. When I complained that my guide had said we’d sail that day and that the itinerary was contingent upon that schedule, he shrugged. “I only manage the ship. I don’t know about your tour company, but everyone in Aswan and Luxor knows we sail on Thursdays,” he said.
Aside from the fact that two different guides seemed to have lied to me, the cruise ship’s itinerary meant I would have less than a day to see Luxor, the location of Egypt’s most treasured archeological sites and the main reason I took the tour. My itinerary had called for two full days, already tight with what I planned to see.
When I got to Luxor on Friday night, my guide there, a man named Reda, conceded that completing everything in the Luxor itinerary – a hot-air balloon ride and visits to Luxor Temple, Karnak Temple, the Valley of the Kings, and the Temple of Hatshepsut – in time for my afternoon bus on Saturday was likely impossible.
He called his manager, who told me that it had been out of his control that the boat left a day late and he’d had no idea. When I told him the cruise-ship director said every guide and company knows the boat sails from Aswan on Thursdays, he offered to put me up for a night in Luxor so I could get two days in the city as promised.
Thankfully, I could afford to add a day to my itinerary. But I met many others on the cruise in a similar situation who had no such wiggle room. They were on meticulously planned one-week or 10-day vacations.
The tug-of-war with tour guides turned a fun experience into an exasperating one
I came to Egypt worrying about safety – a worry that I can say was mostly unfounded – but left exhausted by feeling cheated at every turn.
Over the course of the month, I repeatedly had tours start hours after they were supposed to, watched itineraries change without notice, and heard I had significantly less time at a tourist site than I’d been told when booking – to the point that guides rushed me through temples I’d waited my whole life to experience. I had drivers try to drop me 45 minutes away from my hotel because it was more convenient for them and tour operators lie about where our transportation was.
At first, I thought a poorly managed tour company was to blame.
But, as the incidents stacked up with different companies and guides, it began to feel like a pattern. Nearly every traveller I met on the cruise ship, in Aswan, in Cairo, and elsewhere described similar experiences to me, and they’d all booked with different companies or guides.
The experience bummed me out.
More than most countries I’ve visited, Egyptian tourism seemed to benefit locals, not just international conglomerates. The guides, drivers, inn owners, and tour operators were, from what I saw, always locals from the town or city. Most were exceptionally friendly and open, with a wealth of knowledge about their country and its history.
I sympathize with those in Egypt suffering the post-revolution economic downturn. I hope tourists return en masse to experience the many amazing landscapes, the culture, and the history the country has to offer. It would do wonders for helping the country – and its beleaguered people – get back on its feet.
But I know that, while I’m the kind of traveller who has the flexibility to deal with those aggravations, others may go home feeling that visiting Egypt isn’t worth the hassle.
That’s bad news for everybody.
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