For the past month, because 30 days is all you get with a standard visa as a United States citizen, Egypt has been a very interesting place to learn about ancient North African and Middle Eastern history, as well as of current day Arabic culture and prominent Sunni Islamic teaching.
As a country that lies at the gate, or perhaps is the gate, between the Middle East and Africa, Egypt has an important role to play in the geo-political affairs of the region. This role has at times attracted trouble and affected Egypt’s safety, statehood, and economy. It has a growing faction of ISIS making its home in the northern Sinai area facing Israel, it has a growing disconnect between those in power and the millions of youth who seek a more democratic and modern way of life than the old fundamentally conservative authoritarian way, and it suffers a continously stumbling economy that only frustrates it’s inhabitants more.
With these in mind, there are three key takeaways I have as I prepare to depart from Egypt and move on to my next destination. These reflect conclusions that I feel are important and can only really be confirmed by being physically present in the country, not just from reading articles online. And as I did in my assessment for Israel, at the end of this post I will include 10 travel tips as reference for anyone looking to travel to Egypt which cover different topics like budgeting, food, tech, transport, etc.
1. Egypt Needs Tourism, Very Badly
As I’m writing this I’m laying on a beach lounger with the waves of the Red Sea touching the shore only a few feet in front of me. The weather is amazing, the water is warm, and the sight is beautiful: you can see the Sinai mountains to the right and the mountains of Saudi Arabia to the left across the sea. Sounds like resort type material right? Well as a matter of fact it is, I am staying in a full blown resort (pool, disco, restaurant, stores, clinic and all) for the first time as an adult.
There’s only one problem. There’s nobody here.
I’m not exaggerating, with the exception of three women on the beach and a group of four men and women back in their rooms, there is no one else at this resort which accommodates 100-150 people. It’s like a ghost town with lights and music. And the price for one night? $20 USD.
This is an accurate representation and unfortunate reality of the tourism industry in Egypt. It’s extremely low compared to what was before the revolution of 2011. According to the United Nations World Tourism Organization, tourists to Egypt have plummeted from 14.7 million to 5.4 million in 2016. As I’ve gone around and visited the different sites around the country, every guide or worker tells me that they are struggling financially and are working maybe once or twice a week instead of every single day like it was previously.
Unfortunately, the financial struggles of Egyptians at tourist sites has lead to the non-guide workers tricking tourists into taking pictures or non-official tours with them and then turning around and asking for money. This method of business is very un-American (requesting payment for a service you didn’t ask for in the first place), and to make matters worse if you give them only a little money they will be annoyed and say “What is this? It’s less than a dollar. Come on, give me more please!” It’s a huge turn off for tourists, and it only makes matters worse for Egyptians as those tourists go home and share their experience with others.
Even though I am also one of those who get tired of such sleazy antics, I will not say that because of that you should stay away from Egypt. I was warned of this issue by a friend before I came here, and as such prepared myself to address those situations each time. Besides those interactions I really enjoyed seeing in person the stuff you watch on documentaries and movies. Likewise, if you come to Egypt with the knowledge that haggling and begging are common place in and near the touristy sites in Egypt, you can become mentally prepared to address each situation and still enjoy your time.
You have to understand the plea of the Egyptian people. They are very proud of their country and heritage and want to share it with the world. They once had the means to do so with a stable and functioning economy of which tourism was a heavy contributor; but now they have had a stumbling economy for many years in which tourism is no longer a heavy contributor, and therefore the common folk are disgruntled and disappointed. Of course they are going to act a little over the line. It doesn’t make it acceptable, but it is understandable.
As further example of the plea of Egyptian tour guides, you will hear at the end of most of your trips: “Is it okay? Did you enjoy your trip? If so, please go home and tell your friends Egypt is okay. Tell them to come visit.” From the locals out in the streets you will hear with a heavy accent: “Welcome my friend, where you from? Ah [insert your country here], welcome friend. Enjoy Egypt and tell your friends to visit as well.”
The positive side of this all for you, and why you should indeed come to Egypt, is that at this moment in time it is a very budget friendly place to visit. As I mentioned earlier, you can stay at a full blown resort for the price of half a weeks coffee. Food? I’m getting away with eating a full meal for about $1. No there’s no zero’s missing there: one dollar.
So seriously, for the sake of the Egyptians who are very friendly and fun people, and for the sake of scratching your itch for traveling and seeing one of the last remaining ancient wonders of the world (the Pyramids of Giza), really consider coming to visit Egypt sometime soon. You’ll be happy you did, and you can easily visit Israel and Jordan while you’re out here as well.
2. Egypt Struggles Between Modernity and Antiquity
As the most populated Arab country in the region, next to the most economically powerful Arab country in the region (Saudi Arabia), Egypt is the hub for all that is progressive and new. It influences and sets the tone for what can be culturally, politically, technologically, and academically acceptable in the Arab region. For example, since the end of the first World War more than “4000 films have been produced in Egypt, three quarters of the total Arab production.” This bled into the music industry too, as one of the most famous musicians in the Middle East for three decades now is Amr Diab; an Egyptian. The capital of Egypt, Cairo, specifically is where most of the influence stems from as that is where most of the youth, universities, businesses and political offices are located. Many different people from the region come to Cairo looking to study, make business connections, or to have fun. I was told by a friend that it is well known that rich Saudi men come to Cairo to “let loose” from the strict religious environment they live in and party, drink, and find evening lady companions. It is like the Vegas of the Middle East.
That being said, by Western “party city” standards Cairo doesn’t even come close. Egypt is still very much a religious majority Muslim nation in which you hear the call to prayer from the minaret of a mosque anywhere you go in the country. Per accepted practices in Islam, most of the women outside are wearing hijabs, and some even wear niqabs. It should be said also that the ratio of women to men who are out in the streets is, let’s say, 1:5 (that’s not exact, I made that up based on personal observation). The point is that most women, especially in the underdeveloped cities outside of Cairo and Alexandria, are out of public sight and at home with children. It is mostly older and young men and boys who are outside, either going somewhere or just sitting outside doing absolutely nothing. The men wear a traditional one piece tunic which makes you feel like you are walking back in time, and to this day they still greet each other with the ancient biblical times practice of “with a kiss.” Meaning, they shake your hand and kiss the air next to your cheek on both sides. Then they keep holding on to your hand until they finish the typical small talk that comes with greeting a friend or stranger.
While for a foreigner visiting Egypt the ancient and religious practices are interesting and in their own way charming, for the natives of the country, especially the youth, it can be overbearing, corrupt, and antiquated. They seek the freedoms of expression, technological advancements, and economic livelihood afforded to us in the West, and as such it was the youth in Cairo both in Tahrir Square and online that spearheaded the January 25 Revolution back in 2011 which lead to the ousting of then 30 year president of Egypt, Hosni Mubarak. Although the political and economic situation in Egypt has been rocky and continually developing since then, the result of the two week revolution instilled a sense of power and pride in Egyptians that hangs on to this day.
This power and pride, however, at times comes at odds with the current government administration which has been claimed by some Egyptians to be too militant and police-state oriented. The current president, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, who was the former chief-of-staff of the Egyptian Armed Forces, justifies his actions as him addressing the terrorism from radical Islamic extremists that is spreading within his borders. He wants to provide order and safety in Egypt, which leads us to our final point.
3. Egypt is Safe, Despite Media Focus on Terrorism
Even with an affiliate of ISIS based in Sinai who has claimed responsibility for several attacks on churches and security check points throughout the country in the past year, Egypt is pretty safe.
“Wow you’re really selling the point with that first sentence.”
No really though, I’m not going to lie or avoid the fact that there is the risk of deadly terrorism here in Egypt, but I will challenge you and ask where isn’t there? Whether you live in America or Europe, or even more recently in China, if you think that radical Islamic extremism and terrorism is not a growing threat in your country you are seriously kidding yourself. It is a poisonous ideology that is spreading rapidly with the help of social media and a prominent anti-Muslim rhetoric across the Western nations. Zealous, unfulfilled, uneducated and abandoned youth find serenity in brotherhood and in devoting themselves to a mission bigger than themselves. Their cause can’t be fully stopped with bullets, it has be addressed in the mind and in the spirit with love. But I disgress.
My point here is that during my time here in Egypt I never once felt my life was in danger. And that’s not because I stayed in “safe areas”, I walked around the common streets on my own, in the middle of crazy traffic (you want to talk about death, you have more of a chance dying here from crossing the street than from ISIS), and away from all the touristy areas where I was noticeably the only foreigner walking around. To add unto that, I also walked around with a Christian cross hanging around my neck. No shame or fear, just peace and faith. And I didn’t have any issues with anyone, people were actually quite nice and helpful.
It’s a shame that Egyptians, especially Muslims, are claimed to support ISIS just because of their shared faith. This is far from the truth. Of all the Muslims I’ve talked to in Egypt about ISIS, not one of them has expressed even a little sympathy for the group. They hate them, for the evils they commit, for the bad light they bring to Islam, and for hurting the Egyptian tourism industry (hence, their wallets). Even with the leading institution of Sunni Islam, the teachings which ISIS adheres to, being based in Cairo, it is has been apparent up to this point that few, if any at all, Egyptians have been found in the ranks of ISIS. The closest supporters to ISIS that are in Egypt may be the Muslim Brotherhood, and recently three of their leaders have been charged with life sentences in prison without the possibility of parole.
As mentioned earlier, the president of Egypt has taken sometimes questionable military steps in addressing the growing threat of terrorism. The non-questionable aspects of this are the numerous security checkpoints both in big cities and in between cities on the major highways (you won’t avoid them either by bus or taxi, so expect an extra 15-20 min to your travel if you are at one). At the tourist sites there are police in uniform and bullet proof vests sitting either in the back of an old Nissan police truck or behind a steel wall with a rectangular hole for the head of a rifle to stick out of at all times. Even when Pope Francis came to visit Egypt towards the end of April, there was not one incident of terrorism that occurred during his stay.
All in all, safe is a relative term in the sense that everyone has a different level of safety they are comfortable with. Unless you get sick very easily, have asthma, or are frightened by weapons and soldiers, you will be just fine in Egypt. It is a safe, historical, and naturally interesting country to visit. You’ll be amazed at how civilization and green fields full of crops and fruits exist right alongside the Nile River, and then just a few miles to the left or right it’s nothing but arad desert. The splendor of the pyramids, tombs, mummies, old cities, and current day civilization with the desert as a backdrop is quite something to behold.
Finally, a note for the ladies: Do be forwarned that the culture here is still very much macho and as such you will get stared at by a lot by men in the streets, especially if you show some skin. A few may cat call, but they only look and don’t touch. I’m not downplaying or making light of it either way, but until the men are educated to control their behaviors and to look at women as equals it is a reality in this part of the world. I’ve met several girls traveling by themselves here who make it around just fine and have learned to ignore the stares and whistles with no problems. Some even go out of their way to wear shorts and a tanktop, as if to make a statement that they will not be subjugated to the cultural norm for women. I’m not sure how smart that is, but you make the call.
Travel Tips for Egypt
As promised, here are a few travel tips that may be of assistance to you should you decide to visit Egypt someday.
- Arriving: You have many options depending on where you’re coming from. Most people fly into either Cairo (top center of country) or Sharm El Sheikh (bottom of Sinai region) depending on their reasons for visiting Egypt. If you’re coming from Israel in the north or Sudan in the south you can also cross the border by land. Just stay vigilant as these border crossings can at times be problematic depending on current events between the respective countries.
- Accommodation: There are hostels all over Cairo that you can stay in for as little as $7 USD a night. I’d recommend Freedom Hostel, WakeUp Cairo, or Dahab Hostel. In Alexandria there was a nice hostel called Triomphe Hostel near the Mediterranean Sea that was fitted from an old school building with big old fashioned copper keys, an early 20th century elevator, and saloon door type windows. In Luxor and Aswan along the Nile in the south, I was actually on a cruise so I’m not sure what hostels or hotels are like. In Sinai area, Dahab is a nice place to visit with a lot of hostels and it is quieter than the very touristy and resort-y Sharm el Sheikh.
- Transportation: Within the cities there are plenty of taxis, either automobile or horse carriages depending on where you are. There are buses and trains that go throughout the major parts of the country to fill your transport needs. I used Go-Bus to go the shorter 2-7 hour distances, and I bought overnight train tickets to go long distances like from Cairo to Luxor (12 hour trip). Bus tickets are easy to buy at their respective company kiosk in the city, but the train tickets are a bit tricker as there are obscure rules as to what types of tickets foreigners and Egyptians can buy. I had my hostel take care of purchasing the necessary train tickets for me.
- Safety: As mentioned earlier, Egypt is safe to travel for both men and women. For women, however, I would suggest being more aware of your surroundings and not getting caught alone in sketchy neighborhoods, or at night.
- Food and Sanitation: This is what you really need to be concerned and aware about more than anything. The water here is not clean nor drinkable, and as such you must buy bottled water to drink or cook with. Fruits and vegetables need to be rinsed thoroughly (tap water may suffice for this) and it’s best to peel the skins and cook the vegetables well. Food in general needs to be cooked thoroughly, so be mindful of the type of street food you eat (it is delicious though!). No ice in your drinks, and I personally am even weary of drinking from glass cups regardless of being washed. You need to take care in this topic because even me, who rarely ever gets sick and hasn’t taken any meds in over 10 years, got an infection and had to take antibiotics recently.
- Money, credit and cash: This was a point of pain for me personally. Credit cards are not accepted in 99% of the restaurants, hostels, shops, or museums in Egypt. I think I used mine only three times in one month, so you definitely need to have access to cash or bring a whole bunch with you. I recommend bringing some Egyptian Pounds (LE) with you, to the tune of 100 LE (about $5.50). That will be plenty to get one individual out of the airport and to your accommodation by taxi (I wouldn’t recommend figuring out the local bus system right away). You’ll have some leftover for a quick bite of food as well if you’re hungry. Once you arrive to your abode, you can pull out more cash from a nearby ATM via your debit card (I rarely ever got charged ATM fees) to pay for your stay. As I told you most places don’t take credit card so I personally carried about 500 LE (~$27) with me to cover food, hostel payment, transport, museum tickets, tips (Egyptians live off tips) and other misc things for a few days.
- Daily Budget (subject to change by seasonal prices): Hostel one night = 150 LE; 3 Decent Sized Meals = 50-100 LE; Inter-city bus tickets = 60-100 LE; Museum tickets = 50 LE. Total in one day: 310-400 LE (or, per current exchange rates, $16-22 USD). Per current exchange rates, $1 USD = 18 LE.
- Medical Needs: Though because of a food and air borne illness I got sick enough to probably have checked into a hospital, I did not. So I’m not sure how modern the hospitals and clinics are, but I will say there are plenty of pharmacies throughout the cities with whatever you need. I was able to buy a 16 pack of Amoxycillin (500 MG) for under $3 with no prescription required. You just tell the person what you have or need, and they will sell it to you.
- Technology: WiFi is available in some restaurants but not all. Some hostels don’t have WiFi either, so be prepared to be disconnected every now and then. If you want to buy a sim card with data for your phone, you can certainly do that too. I bought a sim card from Vodaphone and went to the local grocery store to buy “charge packets” in order to put minutes and 12 GB of data for my month stay. The total cost was just under $10 USD (very cheap). What you do need to bring is a wall adapter since they are different from the US.
- Miscellaneous: Be aware that as a foreigner you will get charged insanely inflated prices for just about anything (except food). Taxi rides, souvenirs and trinkets, special or private tours, etc. Egyptians think foreigner = money, and as the common Egyptian struggles financially they do take their chances to squeeze every penny out of you. You could look at this as unfair, or like me you could look at it as a game and opportunity to bargain/haggle. To get the price you want for anything, you have to be ready to walk away as if you’re not interested and then you’ll get called back with a more reasonable offer. It works every time. If you’ll waste money on anything in Egypt it will be in paying way more than you should for a good or service. Given it’s only a few dollars we’re talking about for the most part, but those few dollars add up if you’re not careful and if you’re the shopper-type or utilize a lot of taxis. Have fun with it, it’s part of the experience.
Hope this helps.
My parting words to you are: visit Egypt. Just in coming here and spending money you will be bolstering the Egyptian economy and contributing to the stability of the country. And for you, why not see the ancient pyramids, tombs, and other sights for a bargain price? According to the Egyptian Minister of Tourism, 2017 has so far shown an uptick in tourism, which means that if the bottom has been reached and the uptick continues it will only get more expensive from here on out.
So visit while it’s cheap, make friends with the lovely locals, and enjoy a profound history and current events lesson!