National Tour Association Offers Egypt Insights

Ongoing unrest in Egypt leaves National Tour Association (NTA) tour operators with mixed views about the future of tourism in Egypt, said Lisa Simon, president of NTA, the leading association for prof

National Tour Association Offers Egypt Insights

Ongoing unrest in Egypt leaves National Tour Association (NTA) tour operators with mixed views about the future of tourism in Egypt, said Lisa Simon, president of NTA, the leading association for professionals serving travelers to, from and within North America. “Some of our members see a fairly short recovery time because of Egypt’s unique offerings; however, others are concerned about the uncertainty and safety of the destination.”

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Simon has been impressed with how NTA tour operators have dealt with the situation. “Their response was immediate: They moved quickly to guarantee the safety of their clients and any staff members in Egypt,” Simon said. “And since then, they have remained incredibly attentive to developments in Egypt, evaluating daily—hourly, even—what it means for travel there.”

Since demonstrations against Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak began in January, tours, flights and cruises have been halted in a country where 12 percent of its citizens have tourism-related jobs. While a precise timetable for Egyptian tourism remains unresolved, some operators, including Barbara Osman, owner of 4 Seasons Tours and Travel in Wilmington, Del., have definite opinions about the prospects for future travel to Egypt.

“It’ll open up. Egyptians need their tourism; it’s one of the major sources of income,” said Osman, whose husband is a native Egyptian. “I think tourism will begin again in early May, and maybe sooner.”

Osman believes the elements that make Egypt a popular destination for travelers will remain long after the protests are over.

“The Egyptian travel infrastructure is wonderful: the tour operators do a good job, my motorcoaches are never late, and there is a guard on every bus who looks out for the group,” she said. “Americans are surprised at how many people speak English, and converting currency is easy. Every place has the same exchange rate, and every hotel has a bank inside.”

Ashish Sanghrajka, president of Big Five Tours & Expeditions, also has a positive long-term outlook. In the short term, Big Five offered clients scheduled to visit Egypt the option of postponing travel for up to a year or choosing an alternate destination—Argentina, Brazil or Morocco, for example— without penalty.

“But also we have people scheduled to go there in May who aren’t cancelling,” Sanghrajka said. “They’re saying, ‘Let’s wait and see.’”

Sanghrajka is confident that travel to Egypt will open up again because of the country’s unique offerings: the Great Pyramids, the Sphinx, the Egyptian Museum and the ancient temples. “There’s an insatiable appetite for Egypt,” he said. “For almost every other country in the world, there is another site that duplicates what it offers. But where else are you going to see what Egypt offers?”

Phil Sheldon’s company has been offering unique, specialized itineraries to Egypt for more than 35 years, including travel on the Nile River on a paddlewheel steamer. Sheldon, president of Hanns Ebensten Travel in Key West, Fla., had a group touring Egypt in early January—before the demonstrations—but doesn’t have another one scheduled until November. He has seen civil unrest before.

“I lived in China during the ’80s, and I see certain parallels in the current situation in Cairo with what happened in Tiananmen Square in 1989,” Sheldon said. “While an attack on the demonstrators could set back progress in Egypt for years, I am also seeing positive signs out of Cairo. Both sides are appealing to their common heritage as Egyptians.”

Another operator wary of the region’s volatility is Courtney Ashley, co-owner of About Tours in Glen Ellyn, Ill. Her company cancelled a tour scheduled to depart March 2, and she is not optimistic about Egypt’s long-term tourism prospects.

“The longer the unrest goes on, with the scenes of clashes between various factions, the worse for Egypt’s image,” Ashley said. “Even once things settle down, whatever the resolution, I think people will be reluctant to commit. Who knows if the situation will blow up again?”

Osman, who has traveled to Egypt 47 times, said she is never afraid to visit the country and anticipates Americans will return when the situation eases. “Americans have 90-day memories,” she said. “They won’t forget about the unrest, but it’ll be in the back of their minds.”

According to Sanghrajka, such situations are always on the minds of Americans. “Since 9/11, Americans have a new reality about civil unrest,” he said. “Travelers always ask about politics.”

Because Big Five Tours maintains an office in Cairo, Sanghrajka has been able to monitor—and share—developments as they occur. Using the company’s Facebook and Twitter accounts, Big Five has regularly posted audio recordings from Gamal Abu Seif, the director of Big Five Egypt.

“Gamal is Egyptian so this is very personal to him,” Sanghrajka said of his associate’s detailed and, sometimes, emotional accounts. “In times of crisis, it is usually difficult for ordinary people to reach out to the larger world. This is where today’s technologies in social media have proven to be invaluable.”

Simon is confident that regardless of what happens in Egypt, NTA members will use everything from social media to on-the-ground reports and add it their own extensive experience in operating tours. “These are capable and savvy professionals,” she said. “They not only provide their clients with fantastic travel experiences—they also look out for them.”

As for the resumption of travel to Egypt, Osman believes it is inevitable. “Everything is so big in Egypt, and people want to see the monuments,” she said. “When I saw the pyramids in my sixth-grade geography book, I knew I wanted to go there.”