A tourism revolution

The Semiramis Hotel in Cairo is located just off the Qasr al-Nil Bridge in the heart of Africa’s biggest city. Roughly half the rooms overlook the Nile and are priced higher than those on the opposite side, which overlook downtown. When I checked in, in early March, the hotel was largely abandoned, with both tourists and business travellers shunning the city that was still reeling from the 18-day revolution that toppled Hosni Mubarak. Still, I shocked the attendant behind the desk when I requested a room on the backside of the hotel, with no view of the river.

“Why do you want to stay there?” she asked.

“Because I want a view of Tahrir Square,” I said.

The historic youth uprisings sweeping the Middle East – reaching 20 countries in the first five months of the year – are remaking politics, international affairs, and relations among the Abrahamic faiths. But they are also having an even more immediate impact on the largest people-to-people exchange between the Muslim world and the west: tourism.

Casual travellers have abandoned the region. Tourism in Egypt is down 65 per cent from a year ago, reports the Cairo government, representing a loss of $2.27bn in the three months since Mubarak fell. In Tunisia, the decline is 40 per cent, while in Yemen cancellations have reached 75 per cent. Bookings in Syria are near zero.

But for travellers who are daring thrill-seekers, or just plain history buffs, the combination of once-in-a-generation events, coupled with rock-bottom prices and no queues, makes visiting such regions particularly alluring. So what do you need to know?

I have spent the past 25 years travelling for a living, including to some unstable places. These include the Kurdish war zone in extreme eastern Turkey; Iran; and a harrowing trip to Iraq in the middle of the war in which I rented body armour, was airlifted into Baghdad, and hired armed security to take me to biblical sites across the country.

Even my honeymoon was caught up in international conflict. When Linda and I were married eight years ago, we vowed to go to a place neither of us had been. At first I planned a trip to Mongolia, which was cancelled because of the Sars outbreak. Next on the list was Jakarta and Bali, which we had to call off after bombings in Bali. Finally, I planned a trip to Morocco. Six weeks before our wedding, bombs exploded in Casablanca. “Terrorists never strike the same place twice,” Linda said, and we went anyway. We had La Mamounia and other hotels to ourselves.

Still hungover from its revolution, Cairo these days is full of hope, tension, and uncertainty. On the plus side, all tourist spots are open, from the Valley of the Kings near Luxor to Abu Simbel in Aswan and the Egyptian Museum in Cairo, which had been closed during the height of the turmoil. During my visit, I went out to the pyramids in Giza. The site was the emptiest I’ve ever seen it, which gave it a rare sense of intimacy, but meant the vendors were more eager than ever for commerce.

When I slipped past the “No climbing” signs, a guard hurried over to ask for a bribe. My Cairene companion snapped, “There’s been a revolution. You can’t do that any more!” The guard slunk away in shame.

The revolution affects tourists in unexpected ways. Because of the paucity of visitors, everyone is happy to see you, including shopkeepers, restaurateurs, and taxi drivers. I rented a felucca on the Nile in the heart of Cairo one afternoon. My pilot, Omar, said he feels much safer after the turnover. “I used to look over my shoulder all the time,” he said. “The police used to take me away without warning, just so I would give them more money, or a free ride on the river. Now they just pass by without asking. I can sleep safely on my boat at night.”

There are downsides to the new state of affairs. Crime is up. The country is plagued by random strikes on everything from hotels to bank branches. There are sporadic outbreaks of violence, including church burnings, though these have tended to be in neighbourhoods where visitors don’t congregate.

But what pleasures await if you do go? Brush up on your current events, and Cairo offers an array of excitement it hasn’t had for decades. Tahrir Square, the otherwise drab roundabout downtown, is arguably the most vibrant public square in the world right now, with demonstrations, memorabilia, and a carnival-like atmosphere on a regular basis. Be sure to visit on Friday, when the biggest rallies are held.

Qasr al-Nil bridge, just a few steps away, was the site of the pivotal battle between demonstrators and riot police on February 28. A quick visit to YouTube yields the gripping video. Even the Egyptian Museum played a part in the revolution. Police used the final resting place of King Tut as a detention centre.

The sense of history-in-the-making even extends to the country’s most far-flung destination, including the Sinai beach resort of Sharm el-Sheikh, where the Mubaraks retired after their ouster. Tourist officials have begged the military to relocate the former president and his family, as their presence is scaring away foreigners.

On my last day in the country, I went to the coastal town of Ismailia, located on the shores of Lake Timsah, which many believe is the spot where Moses led the Israelites to freedom 3,200 years ago. The fish shacks and rental boat outfits along the water were starving for business. I rented a small dingy and set out on to the water with a fisherman, Kamil.

About a mile in front of us was a line of enormous tankers and container ships making their way through the Suez Canal, which bisects the lake. Beyond it was a memorial to the 1973 war with Israel.

Suddenly, a speeding police boat emerged out of nowhere and headed directly toward us. I held my breath. The officers pulled up alongside us, gripped our bow, and interrogated Kamil. It seemed we were getting too close to the Suez Canal. Within minutes, however, they saluted us, and sped off. Kamil couldn’t believe it. Normally, he said, they would have roughed him up and taken his catch. “Now they even salute me!” he said.

In one brief excursion, we had encountered the Exodus, the 1973 war, and the 2011 revolution. This is the gift of dangerous travel: the past and the present are both more alive. Not to be outdone by the Twitterers of Tahrir, I pulled out my smartphone and tweeted the news.

Bruce Feiler’s ‘Generation Freedom: The Middle East Uprisings and the Remaking of the Modern World’ is published on June 28 by Harper Perennial

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