My Itchy Travel Feet | The Baby Boomer's Guide To Travel

Taking a chance on Egypt: should boomers go?

2012/03/29by Donna Hull

boomer-tour-sphinx-egypt

At Giza, a pyramid peeks from behind the Sphinx

Ancient pyramids standing tall under the desert sun, the extravagance of Tutankhamun’s funeral mask, the Muslim call to prayer drifting over Cairo as exotic sights and smells assault your senses—are these the images that fuel your boomer travel dreams?

Since the Egyptian Revolution occurred in Cairo’s Tahrir Square on January 25, 2011, tourism—especially American visitors to the country—has declined. But boomer travelers willing to conquer their fear of a country sorting out the aftermath of revolution will discover fewer crowds at prime sites like the Giza Pyramids and Valley of the Kings. They’ll also meet a population eager to discuss new-found freedoms, at least that was my experience on a 6-day visit to Cairo.

Overcoming Boomer Travel Fears

When I called my 81-year-old mother before leaving the U.S., there was a long pause and then a sigh.

“I wish you weren’t going,” she said.

“Mother, I’ll be just fine. I’m traveling with an experienced tour company. Besides, Egypt depends on tourism. The local guide isn’t going to take visitors anywhere that’s dangerous.”

“Could you send me a postcard just so that I’ll know you’re okay?” she asked.

My brother left this message on my Facebook page: “Donna, hope you have a wonderful, eye-opening trip! However, I’d feel better if you were protected by a squad of  (Navy) SEALS.”

Their concern was understandable. The week before my departure, the media had been filled with photos and reports about the attack on the Israeli Embassy in downtown Cairo. Even my normally calm husband insisted that I contact the tour operator to discuss safety concerns.

I assured family and friends that the city is home to over 20 million people. I wasn’t going to let one tragedy that happened on a corner of downtown Cairo scare me away.

Feeling welcomed and safe in Egypt

As the EgyptAir plane descended toward the Cairo airport, the flight attendant sitting in the jump seat across from me started a conversation about life in Egypt. He voiced enthusiastic and encouraging words on the country’s future.

His final words to me, “We like Americans.”

Most U.S. tourists traveling to Cairo stay at one of the luxury hotels along the Nile River or arrive on a mammoth day-long excursion when their cruise ship docks in Port Said or Alexandria. They explore the antiquity sites, perhaps dine in an upscale restaurant at one of the hotels; but their only interaction with the local culture is with workers in the service industry or the tout who’s selling trinkets in the parking lot of the Giza pyramids.

My experience would be far different starting with accommodations in the Dokki section of the city. AuthentiCity Travel—the U.S. company that had invited me to join a cultural tour of Cairo—houses guests at the Safir Hotel in a neighborhood that is safe for foreign visitors to explore on their own.

The week in Cairo began with a get-acquainted-tour around the neighborhood of the hotel. Our local guide pointed out the 24-hour pharmacy, a coffee shop with a good wireless connection and restaurants that we might be interested in trying—emphasizing the neighborhood’s safety and encouraging us to explore on our own.

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Spice shop in Cairo

Our group wove in and out of stores, stopping to inspect bins of spices, baskets of local vegetables  and fresh fish resting on mounds of ice in the front window of the fish market. After wandering through the narrow aisles of a local grocery store, I stood in line to purchase a bottle of water for the hotel room.

An older gentleman turned in my direction with a sincere greeting. “Welcome to Egypt,” he said.

At first, I was startled. This experience hadn’t happened to me in other countries, but It wasn’t the only time that I heard those friendly words while in Cairo.

Later in the week, I joined three tour members for the 30-minute walk to dinner at The Flying Fish. The biggest safety challenge for us—crossing the busy Cairo streets—a feat requiring careful navigational skills.

Discovering History Flavored With Change

During my time in Cairo, I saw the usual tourist highlights including the pyramid sites at Giza and Sakkara, where the touts are more persistent than ever. Who can blame them? With tourism numbers down, making a living has become even more challenging. But I also had the opportunity to witness the dynamic changes of a culture in transition. And, given the opportunity, many locals are interested in sharing their views on the events happening in their country.

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Walking in the old Muslim Quarter of Cairo

Tahrir Square, the site of the 18-day revolution that began on January 25, 2011, has become a sort of tourist attraction. One afternoon our group met activists at a coffee shop near the square to discuss their participation in the revolution, which has fueled their optimistic hopes for Egypt’s future.

At the Egyptian Antiquities Museum, I stood on the second floor near the domed entrance listening to our outspoken guide voice her views about the robbery that occurred during the days of the revolution. In her opinion, a government official was involved. Before the revolution, it would not have been safe for her to openly criticize the government.

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Boomer chorus performs Egyptian Golden Oldies at the Culture Wheel in Cairo

Later that evening, our group attended an evening performance by a boomer chorus performing Egyptian golden oldies for the local community at the Culture Wheel. The concert ended with members of the chorus waving Egyptian flags while singing national songs. Two women in the front row, one veiled, the other not, held hands as they sang.

Never did I feel in danger or unsafe during my time in Egypt. As I discovered, boomer travelers are more likely to experience stomach distress than find themselves in a dangerous situation on the streets of Cairo.

This is a first-hand report of my travel experience in Egypt from September 2011. Yours may not be the same, especially as political circumstances change. When traveling to a country that is in turmoil, I recommend that you use good judgement, seek out in-country news through a variety of sources (don’t rely on one biased report) and travel with a group (safety in numbers).

Have you recently visited Egypt? Did you feel safe? Post a comment to share your experience. Alan and I would like to return for a Nile cruise.

Disclosure: This travel experience was provided by AuthentiCity Travel. The views are my own.

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A boomer travel and lifestyle authority who is exploring the world one activity at a time. Besides writing and publishing My Itchy Travel Feet, she also writes about boomer travel for My Well-Being Powered by Humana, Make It Missoula and is the author of My Itchy Travel Feet: Breathtaking Adventure Vacation Ideas.

{ 20 comments… read them below or add one }

Barbara Weibel March 29, 2012 at 7:21 am

Donna, I have been debating whether or not to go to Egypt. As you know, I am an independent traveler and rarely do tours, but this one sounds like it was particularly adept at creating cultural opportunities and not just showing people the tourist sites.
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Julia March 29, 2012 at 7:30 am

Thanks so much for this — Egypt is a fascinating country, and their economy REALLY relies on tourism. Plus. what an amazing time to see a place up close!
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Susan Lanier-Graham
Twitter:
March 29, 2012 at 10:20 am

I visited Egypt last July for 10 days. I never really felt unsafe and found the eagerness with which everyone spoke of the revolution and their visions for the future to be such a unique perspective. I felt privileged to see the country at a time when it wasn’t overrun by tourists, but I also felt a very real sense of desperation as the people try to redefine themselves. If you have a chance for a Nile cruise, take it. We did a four-night cruise and that was probably the best part. The culture in that part of the country is different. (I have an article about the Nile cruise on my site.) The countryside is beautiful and amazing in its contrasts. The temples are unlike anything you’ll see elsewhere. It’s definitely the trip of a lifetime. I agre, though, that visitors need to be aware, find a reputable tour company, and watch the State Dept advisories. It’s also a good idea to register with the embassy. Excellent article!
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Brette Sember
Twitter:
March 29, 2012 at 10:57 am

This sounds amazing. I would not want to be stuck in a boring tourist hotel. I want to get out and see the real country and you did that. I am hesitant about any travel in the Middle East however, and I hope things calm down in coming years because I would love to go.
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Kris
Twitter:
March 29, 2012 at 10:58 am

Thanks for this. Egypt has long been a fascination in this household. My son was studying the pyramids at age 5; I’d love to be able to take us all there before he graduates from college.
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Jane Boursaw
Twitter:
March 29, 2012 at 11:59 am

It does sound a little scary, but definitely do-able with the right tour company and some common sense travel tips to ensure safety.
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Heatheronhertravels
Twitter:
March 29, 2012 at 1:13 pm

I was in Egypt last year not so long after the revolution and I felt very safe – however as you say it’s good to take local advice on where it’s OK to go. Most of the protests are very localised and only on certain days of the week.
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Living Large March 29, 2012 at 2:32 pm

Egypt is someplace we would love to visit. We cannot go now, but I’m glad that you’re writing and encouraging people to visit.

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Debbie Cowie March 29, 2012 at 2:50 pm

thanks for this info. I have been hoping to go Spring 2013. I went to Peru with Gate 1 Travel & I trust them. However, at this time they have stopped their tours to Egypt. I have till Nov. to decide & I am so hoping that they will start their tours again & if they do I am going. Egypt has been #1 on my travel list for many yrs. & I can not wait to go there.

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sheryl March 29, 2012 at 6:38 pm

Sounds like you had a wonderful adventure. I think I’d be a bit hesitant in light of all the upheaval, but it seems that you were very safe and welcome in the country.
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Suzanne Fluhr
Twitter:
March 29, 2012 at 8:16 pm

My husband and I are just back from a two week trip to Central Mexico, San Miguel de Allende, Guanajuato, Queretero and Mexico City. When I announced our travel plans to family and friends, the most common reaction was a question, “Where should I send the ransom?” We traveled independently (I speak Spanish) and in the colonial historic districts, we felt safe, even at night. We traveled by bus. The first class bus stations were spotless and efficient with very reasonable fares. The people we met were lovely and kind. It is so sad that places like Egypt and Mexico have suffered major hits to their tourism industries due to reports of political turmoil (Egypt) and criminal gangs (Mexico). As you recommended, the prudent course is to stay informed, choose where you go and to be mindful of one’s surroundings. I have the same recommendations for when you visit my hometown, Philadelphia.

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ruth pennebaker March 30, 2012 at 9:12 am

I’ve wanted to go to Egypt for years, but feel uncertain about it now. The incidents of crowd violence has been scary. Thanks for the excellent virtual tour, but I’m still reluctant.
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Mark H March 30, 2012 at 3:35 pm

I last went to Egypt before all the recent political upheavals though there have always been unreported little issues in various towns. It struck me that Egyptians seem hyper-conscious of the importance of the tourism industry to their country and go out of their way to ensure the safety of their visitors. Lovely article on the practicalities of seeing this historically unique country.
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MyKidsEatSquid March 31, 2012 at 6:47 pm

Timely post for me. My parents are headed to the Middle East next week, they’re visiting several former/current hotspots as part of a tour. Egypt and Israel are on the list.

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Heather
Twitter:
April 2, 2012 at 9:10 am

I like to hear firsthand accounts of how safe it is to travel in a country that doesn’t seem that safe if you listen to news accounts. You made a good case for Egypt and it sounds like you had a great time.
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jeanine barone April 3, 2012 at 7:48 am

Sounds like you had a great trip. I haven’t made it to Egypt yet. In fact, aside from Israel, I haven’t visited anywhere else in the Middle East. Many countries, including Egypt, are on my list.

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merr April 3, 2012 at 8:02 am

It was good to read your post and understand more than the fear. Thanks for that. I would like to go to Egypt and Israel.
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Alexandra April 3, 2012 at 10:56 am

My daughter went to Egypt a couple years ago and I was terrified the whole time. That was BEFORE the revolution. My husband wants us to go, but I prefer to read about the country on travel blogs like yours and visit France, where I used to live, instead.
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Leslie
Twitter:
April 18, 2012 at 4:23 pm

Just back from a trip to Cairo and a Nile cruise in March and everything was fine, calm and non-threatening. Demonstrations may pick up again now that so many presidential candidates have been disqualified but tour operators will avoid those areas. This is perhaps a perfect time to go since there are few tourists and the Egyptians really appreciate you visiting their country now.

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Donna Hull
Twitter:
April 18, 2012 at 7:23 pm

Hi Leslie, thanks for reporting on your trip to Egypt. Your experience sounds much the same as mine. I’d go back in a heartbeat, especially if it meant no tourist crowds.

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