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nile river egyptThe last time I was in Egypt, the most popular tourist stretch of the Nile between Luxor and the Aswan High Dam was a nonstop bustling waterway populated by small sailboats, working barges and river cruise vessels.

The scene from my vantage point on the sun deck of MS Grand Rose tells a very different story. There are more than 250 passenger ships licensed to sail on the Nile, but at present only about 30 are in operation. The majority lie idle, moored up to five abreast with their doors locked or inhabited by solitary watchmen.

Tourism used to account for 11 percent of the Egyptian economy, but Arab Spring took a heavy toll. River cruising in particular was hit hard. Between 2010 and 2012, the total number of U.K. passengers cruising the Nile fell by more than half, from 58,000 to 28,000 (and there are far fewer Americans).

In 2013, the number of U.K. passengers dropped to a mere 12,200, which was due to tourists being advised against all but essential travel to most parts of Egypt during the peak summer holiday season. This has since been lifted.

The U.S. State Department has a travel alert in place, and warns travelers that political unrest is likely to continue in the future. In particular, the government advocates avoiding travel to the Sinai Peninsula, where a bomb was detonated on a tourist bus, killing four people in Taba (which is near the Israeli border, far from the Nile Valley).

The State Department also urges visitors to avoid any demonstrations, “as even peaceful ones can turn violent.” The U.S. Embassy in Cairo is within a few blocks of Tahir Square, and occasionally has to close when protests occur.

In short, Egypt is unpredictable.

Visitors are coming back to Egypt, though it’s more of a trickle than a flood on the Nile at the moment — and involves few Americans.

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Grand Rose, the ship I am on, is an all-inclusive ship that will be exclusively sold to the British market when tourism picks up. My fellow passengers — mostly Brits and Germans — on the seven-night Luxor roundtrip cruise have no qualms about returning or visiting for the first time, particularly with the added benefit of tempting fares. On our excursions, we meet Europeans and a smattering of Chinese and other visitors from further afield.

The welcome we receive is as warm as the sunshine, with low-paid locals desperate to see the tourists come back. I speak to carriage drivers waiting patiently outside the ship who tell me their livelihoods virtually dried up overnight.

While the hassle from hawkers, the ensuing obligatory haggling and demands for tips for everything from taking a photo to handing out sheets of toilet paper is light-hearted, it is also tiring. There are some things in Egypt that never change, and the relentless pestering was just as I remembered it last time around. I felt sorry for some of the vendors, but if they just left tourists alone — particularly the Brits who love to browse — they would sell far more.

The next day, we drive past lush fields and sugarcane plantations irrigated by the Nile to reach the Valley of the Kings, dug deep into the desert mountains and dating back to the 11th century B.C. It contains the tombs of the pharaohs, most famously Tutankhamun, whose burial chamber was unearthed by British archaeologist Howard Carter in 1922. A few years ago this would have been full — today there are only a handful of other tour groups are visiting the sun-baked valley.

Next stop is the newly opened replica of Tutankhamun’s tomb on the grounds of Howard Carter’s former home. Originally I wondered why people would want to see a facsimile when they can see the real thing. Then I was told that the boy king’s burial chamber is being damaged by humidity and the thousands of tourists who have filed through over the years, so much so that many experts have called for it to be closed. The re-creation is a meticulous copy and, having seen both, I feel as if I am in the real thing. It’s also much more accessible for anyone with mobility issues and can be combined with a visit to the house, left just as it was in Carter’s time.

We sail out of Luxor past the imperious facade of the 19th-century Winter Palace, once a retreat for the Egyptian royal family and now a “grande dame” hotel. It was here that Agatha Christie wrote her 1937 novel “Death on the Nile.”

Read Egypt Trip Reviews by Real Travelers

As Egypt turns the page onto the next chapter of its long history, I am glad to be back. As long as you’re an adventurous traveler comfortable with a changeable and potentially volatile political landscape, now is a great time to go. You get to explore ancient sites and walk past towering statues with hardly anyone else around.

In spite of its recent difficulties and an uncertain political future, Egypt has withstood the test of time. Its history brings in the tourists, and it’s not going anywhere soon.

Would you travel to Egypt right now?

— written by Jeannine Williamson

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6 Responses to “Egypt: Reopening for Business?”

  1. Wendy says:

    Egypt is way down on my list of travel destinations…but it is on my list. The history intrigues me but I wouldn’t go there right now.

  2. Peggie says:

    I have wanted to visit Egypt since childhood, booked on two cruises scheduled to visit, but the ships canceled giving us more time in the Holy Land. Returning to the Holy Land in October and have given up my hope of touring Egypt until issues are resolved and I feel more safe. Pity for all………

  3. Cathy says:

    We spent over two weeks in Egypt – starting the day after Obama was elected. All my friends thought I was crazy to go then, and many advised that I not say I was American. It was and is one of my most memorable trips. The Egyptian people are extremely friendly and I found they especially liked American tourists as we are great tippers. Yes you must be careful (same as any large city like Cairo or New York or London). In Luxor we rented an apartment on the West Bank – directly across from the Luxor Temple – again a wonderful experience. Every day there was better than the next. We definitely plan to return. We remain in touch with our wonderful guide that we hired in Cairo. In fact he has stayed with us in the U.S.

    Definitely it is a good time to visit Egypt for all of the reasons above. I do think hiring an educated guide with a driver will greatly enhance your trip. You will see so much more and have a greater understanding of the antiquities and culture. We used a man named Achmed Siddik (he has a page on facebook), an Egyptologist who is multi-lingual and knows everything!

  4. lee says:

    i have an option to sail from Europe to Dubai with a 2 day stop in Egypt (in one port out another)
    are there ANY travel companies left that can offer SECURE travel only to the pyramids? i do not wish to travel to Cairo or any other city.

    I have heard that the tourist buses have armed escorts, but I wanted to ONLY sail if possible

  5. Louise says:

    I have just returned from my second trip to Egypt and it was as great an experience as it was the first time three years ago. The culture and people are friendly, its safe and the food is wonderful. Egypt needs tourists to get out of the poverty state it has been in. I would advise going with a tour and limit your time in Cairo, go to the sites and temples at the Vally of the Kings. Abu Simbel (must see),see them without crowds, its magical and you will learn so much. If you are afraid don’t waste your time, if you want to see ancient history, go and learn the mysteries of Egypt.

  6. Lori Tabor-Finch says:

    I just got back from a 17 day trip to Egypt. It was fabulous. I was a lone woman traveler, without my spouse and joined up with a tour group, but had a private guide 2 of the days. Best trip I ever took in my life. Cannot say enough how nice the Egyptian people were. Toured the pyramids, Luxor, Aswan, Abu Simbel, Nile Cruise, 4 days in Hurghada, Hot Air Balloon ride. The trip was amazing.

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