Cairenes move beyond their city’s walls in search of adventure through non-traditional travel
By Lorena Rios
Welcome to Egypt,” is one of the first emblematic phrases of a tourist’s visit to Egypt. Spoken in impeccable English — whether in the cafes, the market, the metro or a street corner — Egyptians utter the warm greeting generously. Yet, while tourism plays a major role in people’s livelihoods and is an important source of income for the economy — in 2010 tourism accounted for 11.5 percent of the country’s GDP — tourism in Egypt often caters to foreigners, not locals. Most of the people doing the welcoming have never experienced their country in the ways such a greeting seeks to uphold.
“There is a difference between a tourist and a traveler,” says Belal Kamal, as he smokes shisha in one of the open-air cafes in Borsa, a popular destination in Downtown Cairo. The 26-year-old IT embodies the latter, a Cairene immersed in the rhythms of the megacity, yet attracted to the beauty that has captivated travelers and adventurers to Egypt over centuries past — from Herodotus in the fifth century BC, to the Greeks, Napoleon and explorers like Howard Carter.
The tourism industry in Egypt has seen better days. The first blow to the industry, which plays a vital role in the Egyptian economy, came when the internationally broadcast violence that surrounded the ousting of Hosni Mubarak during the January 25 Revolution instilled fear in hopeful tourists abroad. A bombing of a tourist bus in Sinai in 2014 is one example of how recent events in the country have affected tourism negatively by shedding light on a less than stable security situation for travelers.
The recent years of political turmoil led embassies to issue travel advisories and strict curfews have dissuaded Egyptians, much less international tourists, from walking on the streets. Desolate pyramids, quiet nights in the meandering alleys of El Hussein, idle Nile cruisers, desperate horse and camel owners and wandering tour guides hungry to spot a tourist outside the Egyptian Museum remain signs of a struggling industry.
However, while tourism has taken a hit in recent years and there remains a void of foreign toursists venturing to the pyramids and far down to Luxor and Aswan, Egyptians are becoming curious about what their country has to offer. Adventurous Egyptians are increasingly stepping out of the daily grind and using their vacation days to explore what lies outside the Cairo metropolis.
With 26.3 percent of Egyptians living below the poverty line, according to figures for the 2012-2013 fiscal year, traveling is not a priority for most. However, Egyptians continue to defy economic and social hardships to seek ingenious, low budget solutions to travel and discover Egypt in the raw. While popular travel destinations, hotels and resorts do attract local patrons, some are going off track and adapting to new methods of travel that allow them to see their country differently and with benefits.
“Traveling in Egypt is definitely one of the most beautiful things to do in your life, the diversity of its nature and the hospitality of its people is limitless,” says Galal Zekri Chatila, a 21-year-old cross-country cyclist who has adopted his cycling passion to his travel plans, one of many unconventional travel means Egyptians are taking to. Galal is currently on a 7,000 kilometer journey across Egypt, and has already cycled to Nuweiba and to the four oases of the Western Desert — Baharia, Farafra, Dakhla and Kharga — in a 19-day, 1,650 kilometer trip.
With stress levels running high in Cairo, weekend trips to the beach are the order of the day. “Almost all Egyptians travel to the ‘touristic friendly’ places, where you can find fancy hotels or any kind of luxurious life,” he continues. These include places like Hurghada, Sharm El-Sheik and the North Coast, “I think we need to work on promoting the real travels,” he said, referring to journeys of personal growth and his biking adventures across the country.
For those who may be discouraged to bike due to poor physical condition, Galal doesn’t believe that it should get in the way of biking for leisure. “I don’t see bike trips demanding that much of a physical state,” he says. “It just requires tough spirits.”
Shereen Adel, a Senior Project Manager at Intercom, rides her scooter to work every day. She has also ridden her motorcycle to El Gouna, Dahab and Bahariyya with her husband and fellow bikers. “We call ourselves the wind riders,” she said with a smile that hinted of the adrenaline she feels on the road.
Adel, like many Egyptians, loves to travel but struggles to afford it. “The main reason keeping people from traveling is money,” she says. But learning how to travel without the extravagance of luxury hotels is something that many have yet to learn. By navigating the roads and budgeting properly, Adel was able to accomplish an incredible feat by traveling to 28 cities in 12 days in 2007.
“The tourism industry is over exploited in some places, like Sharm El-Sheik, and underexploited in others, like Siwa and Bahariyya,” says Adel. The concept of traveling for the average Egyptian doesn’t translate to traveling on a budget. “A lot of places are doable over a weekend,” she argues. Instead of waiting for an unforeseeable time to embark on an expensive journey, Adel goes on short trips that provide a respite from the city and quench her desire for travel.
“As my husband says, the first 500 kilometers are just the beginning,” she says.
“I can’t believe I have this in Egypt. I can’t believe it exists,” said a guest in Club Magic Life Kalawy, a sports resort in Hurghada, to Belal. A native of Cairo, Belal is a triathlete who has made sports his profession and trains guests in the resort to perform different physical challenges. “We have two mountain biking sessions, one in the morning and one in the afternoon,” says Belal. “We also have trail runs, snorkeling, fishing and swimming, among others.”
The unspoken assumption that “sports are only for sporty people,” keeps people from coming, he says. Due to the lack of a sports culture in the megacity because of the overcrowded streets and heavy pollution, “a lot of people prefer to relax, go eat and stay in the sun.” Furthermore, most of the tourism companies that advertise this type of alternative traveling do so in Russia, Turkey and Germany, continues Belal. For unconventional, sports heavy tourism, “the Egyptian tourism [industry] has no campaigns.”
Even though the bulk of guests in hotels like Club Magic Life are not Egyptian, the number of Cairenes making a transition to a more active lifestyle is growing. Groups like the Global Biking Initiative, Cairo Runners, Train for Aim, among others initiatives, are building a community that is taking Cairo by storm. Widely distributed on Facebook, it is no longer uncommon to hear of marathons and bike rides across cities in Egypt on a regular, if not weekly, basis.
Belal recalls the first time he ran 10 kilometers and says he “felt that it was easier to go to the moon.” Now, he bikes approximately 50 kilometers a day, six days a week. “It is painful,” he explains, “and it is a mental challenge.” But he is proof that it is possible and that it is never too late to start.
“Waiting for the sunset in Abu Simbel was an extremely joyful experience,” says Maryam about her trip to Aswan in 2014, who was attracted to the mysticism of Ancient Egypt from an early age.
Spiritual tours attract tourists worldwide to the Pyramids of Giza and ancient temples, yet the branding of spirituality can be very expensive for the average Egyptian budget. Maryam began meditating in 2008 and decided to travel to Luxor and Aswan to experience the energy of Egypt’s sacred places.
“Some of these places just grab you and you find yourself in another world,” she says of her experiences in Karnak Temple and Abu Simbel.
In her opinion, the energy emanating from these temples is captivating, yet “you wouldn’t risk being caught meditating,” she warns. She recalls being asked to step out of the Tomb of Tutankhamun by one of the guards for meditating.
“There is no respect for how intense Ancient Egyptian energy is,” said Maryam, “no understanding of how spiritual sacred places are.”
Spiritual tours, healing and relaxation holidays are becoming more popular in Egypt. Yoga retreats are part of a recent trend that goes hand in hand with meditation and replenishing low energy levels through Ancient Egyptian sites. Yoga Nile cruises, retreats to the Red Sea and to the Black and White deserts are often locally organized by yoga instructors in the city and attract groups of like-minded people who seek to rebalance their energy and stress levels.
“Traveling is making the uncomfortable, comfortable,” explains Haytham, his words filled with candor. Haytham is a natural born traveler. He has visited 32 countries and owns Trek Trip, an adventure traveling agency. Haytham targets the average Egyptian traveler, offering affordable trips to the desert, Sinai and other prime locations for eco-tourism. “Egyptians are my backbone,” he says, and currently “90 percent of my clients are female.”
Egypt’s rich cultural diversity can appear foreign to many Cairenes, and local travel agencies like Haytham’s advocate for “blending with the locals,” offering authentic experiences that are otherwise hard to find in Cairo.
Trek Trips, as well as initiatives such as Sinai Is Safe and Egypt-born travel companies like Wild Guanabana, are actively inviting the community to enjoy hiking excursions around Egypt and Sinai, whose reputation has been badly hit by political turmoil.
Unconventional traveling is opening doors to a new kind of tourism, one that is more accessible, far-reaching and rewarding. Organized, short trips, either through local travel agencies like Trek Trip, Terhal or Amaken Trips, are just a click away.