With Egypt Travel Still On Hold, World Awaits
February 11, 2011
Contact: Bob Rouse, bob.rouse@NTAstaff.com, +1.859.226.4275
February 11, 2011
With Egypt Travel Still On Hold, World Awaits
Tour association leader, members eager for renewed travel to Egypt, region
LEXINGTON, Ky.—Hosni Mubarak has resigned as Egypt’s president, the goal of Egyptians who took to the streets on Jan. 25, but the country has not returned to normal. That includes its burgeoning tourism industry. Bucket-list travelers hoping to see Egyptian pyramids—as well as religious sites in Jordan, Israel, Turkey and the Palestine territories—are putting their plans on hold.
Until conditions are calm in Egyptian cities, tourist sites region-wide will remain empty, according to Lisa Simon, president of NTA, the leading association for professionals serving travelers to, from and within North America. For travelers—and those in the travel business—this waiting game is distressing, she said.
"When trouble erupted in Egypt, which is a gateway to the entire region, travel and tourism plummeted," said Simon. "That’s unfortunate for travelers who want to see Egypt and the Holy Land, but it’s devastating for people who rely on those travelers for their livelihood."
Simon, who has traveled to Egypt several times, monitors the dynamic situation there by communicating with Egyptian friends and NTA members; they include not only American and Canadian tour operators who organize trips to Egypt and the Holy Land, but also travel professionals who are Middle East residents.
"We’re all hoping the situation will stabilize completely and travel will be restored," she said. "Our member tour operators have remained incredibly attentive to developments in Egypt, evaluating daily—hourly, even—what it means for travel there."
While a precise timetable for Egyptian tourism remains unresolved, some operators, including Barbara Osman, owner of 4 Seasons Tours and Travel in Wilmington, Del., have definite opinions about the prospects for future travel to Egypt. "It’ll open up. Egyptians need their tourism; it’s one of the major sources of income," said Osman, whose husband is a native Egyptian. "I think tourism will begin again in early May, and maybe sooner."
Osman believes the elements that make Egypt a popular destination for travelers will remain long after the protests are over.
"The Egyptian travel infrastructure is wonderful: The tour operators do a good job, my motorcoaches are never late, and there is a guard on every bus who looks out for the group," she said. "Americans are surprised at how many people speak English, and converting currency is easy. Every place has the same exchange rate, and every hotel has a bank inside."
Ashish Sanghrajka, president of Big Five Tours & Expeditions, also has a positive long-term outlook. In the short term, Big Five has offered clients scheduled to visit Egypt the option of postponing travel for up to a year or choosing an alternate destination-Argentina, Brazil or Morocco, for example—without penalty.
"But also we have people scheduled to go there in May who aren’t cancelling," Sanghrajka said. "They’re saying, ‘Let’s wait and see.’"
Sanghrajka is confident that travel to Egypt will open up again because of the country’s unique offerings: the Great Pyramids, the Sphinx, the Egyptian Museum and the ancient temples. "There’s an insatiable appetite for Egypt," he said. "For almost every other country in the world, there is another site that duplicates what it offers. But where else are you going to see what Egypt offers?"
Phil Sheldon’s company has been offering unique, specialized itineraries to Egypt for more than 35 years, including travel on the Nile River on a paddlewheel steamer. Sheldon, president of Hanns Ebensten Travel in Key West, Fla., had a group touring Egypt in early January—before the demonstrations—but doesn’t have another one scheduled until November. He has seen civil unrest before.
"I lived in China during the ’80s, and I saw certain parallels in the situation in Cairo with what happened in Tiananmen Square in 1989," Sheldon said, adding he feared that an attack on the demonstrators would have set back progress in Egypt for years. Instead, Sheldon said, both sides appealed to their common heritage as Egyptians.
Another operator wary of the region’s volatility is Courtney Ashley, co-owner of About Tours in Glen Ellyn, Ill. Her company cancelled a tour scheduled to depart March 2, and she is not optimistic about Egypt’s long-term tourism prospects.
"The longer the unrest goes on, the worse for Egypt’s image," Ashley said. "Even once things settle down, whatever the resolution, I think people will be reluctant to commit. Who knows if the situation will blow up again?"
Ashley added that she does want to return—eventually. "Once Egypt calms down and we feel the situation is stable, I look forward to showing our customers what a wonderful destination it is," she said. "I know they will treasure the experience as much as I have."
Osman, who has traveled to Egypt 47 times, said she is never afraid to visit the country and anticipates Americans will return when the situation eases. "Americans have 90-day memories," she said. "They won’t forget about the unrest, but it’ll be in the back of their minds."
According to Sanghrajka, such situations are always on the minds of Americans. "Since 9/11, Americans have a new reality about civil unrest," he said. "Travelers always ask about politics."
Because Big Five Tours maintains an office in Cairo, Sanghrajka has been able to monitor—and share—developments as they occur. Using the company’s Facebook and Twitter accounts, Big Five has regularly posted audio recordings from Gamal Abu Seif, the director of Big Five Egypt.
"Gamal is Egyptian so this is very personal to him," Sanghrajka said of his associate’s detailed and, sometimes, emotional accounts. "In times of crisis, it is usually difficult for ordinary people to reach out to the larger world. This is where today’s technologies in social media have proven to be invaluable."
Simon is confident that regardless of what happens in Egypt, NTA members will use everything from social media to on-the-ground reports and add it their own extensive experience in operating tours. "These are capable and savvy professionals," she said. "They not only provide their clients with fantastic travel experiences—they also look out for them. Tour operators know where their travelers are at all times."
As for the resumption of travel to Egypt, Osman believes it is inevitable. "Everything is so big in Egypt, and people want to see the monuments," she said. "When I saw the pyramids in my sixth-grade geography book, I knew I wanted to go there."
About NTA: Now celebrating its 60th year, NTA is the leading business-building association for travel professionals interested in the North American market—inbound, outbound and within the continent. Our buyer members are tour operators who buy and package travel product from around the world. Our seller members are destination marketing organizations and tour suppliers (such as hotels, attractions, receptive operators and transportation companies) from the U.S., Canada and more than 40 countries. For more information, visit http://www.ntaonline.com/.