Egypt's enduring popularity

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Egypt's enduring popularity

By Nicole Edenedo - September 11, 2023
Photo by David McEachan

We entered the Great Pyramid of Giza through the Robber’s Tunnel. Our goal: the burial chamber of the pharaoh Khufu, the Fourth Dynasty ruler of Egypt’s Old Kingdom for whom this pyramid was built.

It didn’t matter that it was August, a month not typically considered in-season to visit Egypt (it’s hot). But the summer heat keeps the crowds at bay, our guides said.

And that was true inside the pyramid, as well. The small group I was with — on excursion from the Viking Aton, the newest ship in Viking’s Nile River fleet — passed only a few other people during our ascent through the cramped, waist-high passage and into the royal tomb.

It didn’t matter to me that all that remained in the (suffocatingly hot) chamber was an empty, chipped tomb or that there were no ancient wall carvings, no hieroglyphics nor mummified remains to be found. We were inside the Great Pyramid of Giza, the last remaining of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World.

It is, of course, a tomb. I thought about death. In that claustrophobic tunnel beneath many cubic tons of limestone (where, yes, I was sweating profusely), I considered my own death, and how my life might be remembered if the 4,500-year-old monument suddenly caved in.

When we got out and compared notes, it turned out those thoughts had been shared by just about everyone in the group. It was then that I thought about the line from the 1999 film “The Mummy”: “Death is only the beginning.”

Death is only the beginning of the enduring global fascination with Egypt. It’s why millions of tourists flock annually to see the mummified corpses, temples, monuments, tombs and other funerary artifacts dedicated to the afterlife of the great kings, queens and pharaohs who once ruled over an ancient civilization. Their deaths were treated not as solemn occasions but as grand exits to a new beginning.

And whether it’s funerary rituals or feats of architectural accomplishment, the fact remains that Egypt’s allure has not been lost to the sands of time. Suppliers say they’ve seen exponential growth in demand for the destination.

“2023 has been a fantastic year for Egypt thus far,” said Kelly Torrens, vice president of product for Kensington Tours. “We’re seeing record sales, up 108% over 2022 year to date and 353% over 2021 year to date. Egypt has consistently been our second-most popular country to visit worldwide, only behind Italy, for the last five years.”

Significant rise in bookings

EF Go Ahead Tours, which specializes in educational tours, said its bookings for travel to Egypt within the next six months are up more than 250% compared with the same period a year ago, while Alexander + Roberts said bookings are up 41% over 2022.

“Egypt is doing very well for us in 2023,” said Scott Avera, president of Alexander + Roberts, adding that he expects even higher growth in 2024 once the new Grand Egyptian Museum opens.

Multigenerational and solo travel are leading the way, suppliers say.

“We are seeing an increase in multigenerational families, specifically parents and grandparents bringing their children and grandchildren for graduation trips,” Avera said. “They’re joining our small groups and also booking our Privately Guided trips.”

Solo travelers have also been booking more Egypt itineraries with operators that offer itineraries curated with the solo traveler in mind as well as guided group trips that solo travelers are welcome to join.

Both EF Go Ahead Tours and Divorce Journeys, which organizes solo trips for women going through divorce, have launched new itineraries in the destination this year, citing increased demand.

Developing new, curated solo trips has proved very popular for the two brands. Both companies said solo travelers are asking to go to destinations that might typically be harder for them to reach and navigate on their own.

“We did some polling, asking, ‘Where would you love to go if you could and had people to travel with?’ And the two destinations that came up for us were Egypt and Morocco,” said Gabriella Ribeiro, founder of Divorce Journeys. “What we find is that people have a deep desire to see the pyramids and to be in the center of where so many things started.”

EF Go Ahead Tours said its Egypt trips attract a wide spectrum of travelers looking for something different. A new, nine-day solo itinerary in Egypt that takes guests to bucket-list attractions such as the Great Pyramid of Giza and the royal burial grounds of Saqqara is appealing to younger travelers with busy work schedules and limited vacation time.

“We are attracting history enthusiasts, cruisers, adventure travelers and multigenerational travelers,” said Lael Kassis, vice president of market innovation and development for EF Go Ahead Tours. “We attract more adventurous travelers booking multicountry tours in Northern Africa and the Middle East, including Egypt, Israel and Jordan.”

Cruising on the Nile

Most travelers who want to visit Egypt, suppliers say, want to experience both Egypt by land and on the Nile River, and so they have developed many options that combine the two. “We anticipated the boom in 2023 and added a third luxury ship on the Nile to add capacity,” Avera said, adding that Alexander + Roberts now offers the luxury Nile ships Oberoi Philae, Oberoi Zahra and Historia. But for guests who may not be interested in cruising or have sailed the waterway before, Alexander + Roberts has launched a seven-day Egypt by Land itinerary that will give travelers more time on the ground exploring sites and attractions in Cairo and Luxor. Kensington Tours has also launched new experiences for clients that combine land tours and river cruises to meet recent demand. The company collaborated with its most tenured tour guides to develop the Excavating the Valley of the Kings & Queens itinerary, which focuses on off-the-beaten-path archaeological experiences on the west bank of the Nile.

The tour features visits to Carter House, the home of the archaeologist who discovered King Tut’s tomb in 1922, as well as lunch at the site of the former Chicago House, which once played host to many renowned Egyptologists conducting active excavations.

“We conclude with a visit to Queen Nefertari’s Tomb, known for having the most vividly colored wall paintings of all,” Kensington’s Torrens said. “We see demand only increasing in 2024 as we anticipate the opening of the Grand Egyptian Museum,” she added. “We’re currently offering exclusive early access tours for guests who would like a sneak peek.”

River cruising will also get a boost with the addition of new ships. Last month, Viking launched the Viking Aton, a sister ship to the Viking Osiris, which launched last year. The company plans to launch two more Nile ships over the next two years.

“I wouldn’t be surprised if there were a few more coming,” Torstein Hagen, Viking’s chairman, said during the Viking Aton’s August naming ceremony in Aswan. “I see huge potential here.”

And AmaWaterways will launch a second ship on the Nile next year, the AmaLilia, which will be a sister to the AmaDahlia, launched in 2021.

A strong comeback

The heightened demand that’s stimulating the growth of new product offerings in Egypt is good news for the country, coming after years of political instability in the 2010s, particularly after the Arab Spring of 2011 rocked much of the Muslim world, with pro-democracy uprisings in North Africa and the Middle East. Many demanded regime change. Whatever the outcome meant for political aspirations, they had a particularly damaging impact on Egypt’s tourism industry for years.

“Prior to the Arab Spring, Egypt had experienced a strong tourism recovery post-9/11,” said EF Go Ahead Tours’ Kassis. “But after the instability associated with the Arab Spring, demand to Egypt dropped. Many companies stopped offering tours in Egypt due to safety concerns.”

EF Go Ahead Tours didn’t return to Egypt until 2016.

And AmaWaterways didn’t return to until 2021. “Egypt stopped for almost 10 years,” said Rudi Schreiner, president and co-founder of AmaWaterways. “Now Egypt is coming back. There’s such huge pent-up demand because people couldn’t really travel to Egypt for 10 years.”

Educating travelers

Today, Egypt’s tourism industry is booming, with not only developments and investment in its tourism infrastructure but with what tour operators say is strong interest in all that the destination has to offer: history, culture and an eternal sense of wonder.

“The prism that guides me is our mission to open the world through education,” said Kassis, who added that the company strives to ensure a safe and communal environment for its guests while also helping them experience the entirety of the world, not just popular tourism destinations.

“Going off the beaten path, even to less developed nations, is a part of the equitable, inclusive and responsible tourism business we are trying to build as we seek to educate travelers — our customers — about places they visit,” she said.

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