Is Egypt safe for tourists?

Pyramid19CDatePalms[UPDATE – 3 July 2013: Since May, when I wrote this post, the situation in Egypt has changed for the worse. However, I’m not providing updated info on this page. Read on for a general overview of travel safety in Egypt, but also follow the news, ask travel companies and check your governmental travel advisory for up-to-date guidance. And/or follow me on Twitter @matthewteller]

I’m just back from 3 weeks in Egypt – and yes, the country is safe for tourists.

That’s it. Go ahead and book your holiday. You’ll have a fabulous time. Thanks for reading.

Oh, you want more?

For this particular trip I didn’t go to Alex or the Delta, I didn’t go to Sinai & the Red Sea resorts, and I didn’t go to the Western Desert. That’s a chunk of Egypt missing. But I did spend time in Cairo, Luxor and Aswan, I did visit key cities and archaeological sites in Middle Egypt, and I did talk to a few people. Here’s my take on things.

Tourism to Egypt is way down. In 2010, 15 million tourists visited. In 2011 that was down to 10 million. Then 11 million in 2012.

But in my book 11 million people is a pretty sizeable vote of tourist confidence – in terms of sheer numbers, it’s more than Morocco gets, more than South Africa, and far more than Argentina, India or Japan. But there’s a political transition under way in Egypt. The country is emerging after decades of dictatorship. Vested interests are jockeying for position. That means Egypt is in the news quite a bit. Work with that. Understand it. Don’t wait for things to go back to normal. There is no more ‘normal’.

And lack of political stability doesn’t necessarily mean lack of tourist safety. Quite the opposite. Police are extra-vigilant now around tourists. The local tourism industry knows it can’t afford to be even a tiny bit complacent. Nobody is taking any chances. Egypt, in some ways, is safer now for tourists than it was before 2011.

Package tours – a worry-free holiday

Book a package tour through a reputable (bonded) company – with flights, transfers, accommodation and excursions included – and you’ll be as safe as safe can be. Even if your tour operator at home is hazy about what’s happening on the ground, their Egyptian agents will know the score at every point, adjusting and refining itineraries to match current conditions.

If you’re on the Red Sea, everything will be normal in and around your resort. If you’re in the south, all of Luxor and Aswan are safe for tourists (other than desperate vendors and guides being extra-specially pushy). If you’re in Cairo, you’ll likely be placed in a hotel away from the downtown area – probably out near the Pyramids, which is absolutely fine. If you make any excursions to sites, it will most likely be by private bus, possibly in convoy with other buses and/or with police escort.

All in all, it’s a worry-free holiday.

Personally, I don’t like package tours. But if you want to see the sights and cover decent ground, a package tour is probably the best way to visit Egypt at the moment.

If you’re travelling independently, you need to have your head screwed on and take slightly more care.

Independent travellers – Tahrir Square in detail

tahriratnightMost guidebooks start their Cairo city account with Tahrir Square. But times have changed. Travel writers would do better to pick another starting point. Currently (May 2013) Tahrir has become distinctly dodgy. Aside from the Egyptian Museum – best reached by taxi – I can’t come up with a compelling reason for tourists to go to Tahrir Square at all just now. Half the square is cordoned off as a construction site. The ex-Nile Hilton – now Ritz-Carlton – has been closed for years. The shops and cafes along the square’s eastern frontage are distinctly ordinary – and, with the square’s new notoriety, are now fringed by vendors and other boisterous characters keen to latch onto foreign gawpers. There’s fast food – KFC, Hardees, Pizza Hut – but not much else.

I’m no shrinking violet, and I’m also not a government official obligated to promote maximum caution. I’m just a British outsider who’s lived, worked and played in Cairo, and been round the Middle East circuit a few times over the last 20 years to boot. And my advice is to think very hard before going to Tahrir Square.

If you want to go, go in daytime – and don’t hang about. If this is your first time in Cairo, I suggest you skip Tahrir.

Either way, I certainly wouldn’t go to Tahrir after dark, or anytime on Fridays.

(Here comes the scary bit.) Tahrir is where protests start, it’s where mobs gather, and it’s where police have laid walls of concrete blocks across several side-streets in order to cut off exit routes and kettle people inside the square (photo and map). And in case you weren’t aware, not all protests these days are noble demands from righteous citizens for democracy. They’re just as likely to comprise several hundred pumped-up young men, armed with knives, guns, molotovs and/or other makeshift weapons, setting fires in the street and facing off against the police for no clear reason. This exasperates ordinary people and committed activists alike. Law and order aren’t totally breaking down, but economic pressures are intense and crime is on the rise (from, it must be said, a very low starting-point). Sexual assaults on women – by which I mean forcible seizure and/or abduction, violent bodily attacks, mass public rape – are a growing feature of the ‘protests’ in Tahrir.

Most of the time, of course, daily life is tension-free. You might not see or even sense anything untoward. These tourists didn’t, for instance. I’m pleased for them.

Be aware that the area around Tahrir – from 6th October Bridge in the north to the British Embassy in the south – is dodgier than the square itself. The side-streets behind the Mogamma building – particularly around Simon Bolivar Square – are notoriously unsafe after dark (this is where Guardian correspondent Jack Shenker was mugged earlier this month, and also where mobs smashed their way into the InterContinental Hotel Semiramis). Mohammed Mahmoud Street – now blocked by a concrete wall – has seen many recent protests. If tear gas is being fired, the ventilation system for Tahrir Square’s metro station (named Sadat) has been known to suck the gas underground into the metro.

If you’re visiting the Garden City district, or staying in one of the hotels there (Kempinski, Four Seasons, Grand Hyatt or others), be aware that Qasr Al Aini Street is blocked at the Tahrir Square end: the only access is along the Corniche. But the Corniche tunnel exit by the Qasr Al Nil Bridge (directly beside the Semiramis) is one of Tahrir’s flashpoints, where crowds gather: if you’re driving back to Garden City after dark you’d do better to make a large circle around the area to approach it from the south instead.

Independent travellers – around Cairo

cairofeluccaBut Tahrir is a tiny part of a giant city. It gets too much attention. This blog post, for instance. Elsewhere, normality reigns.

Cairo seemed fine to me this time, no scarier than any other big city and less scary than many. (The Financial Times agrees!) I walked a lot – around the Coptic churches near Mar Girgis metro, across downtown from Tahrir to Ataba, all the way through Islamic Cairo on Muski and Al Azhar to El Hussein, into the backstreets off Al Moaz, outside the walls past Bab Al Futuh, etc etc – and everything felt crazily normal to me.

I’m pretty naive, though – and people tell me I also blend in fairly well as a local. And I’m male. All of which slants my experience.

But I think visitors would do well to ditch the idea that Tahrir is some kind of Times Square/Piccadilly Circus/Place de la Concorde. Stay elsewhere. Stay in Zamalek. Stay in Dokki. Cairo is big enough that every district is like its own city centre.

The best bit of advice I ever heard for walking in Cairo? Carry your stuff (camera, water, book etc) in an ordinary black plastic bag, the kind the locals carry shopping in. Nothing says ‘foreigner’ more than a daypack. A plastic bag – along with a button shirt, long trousers and a bit of facial swarthiness – has let me amble unremarked into more back alleys than I can remember.

[UPDATE: Travel writer Zora O’Neill tweets to tell me the plastic bag advice was hers – she put it in the LP Egypt guide in 2007, she says. Credit to Zora. And apologies too.]

Independent travellers – around Egypt

As for the rest of Egypt, there are probably only two areas of concern for independent travellers. One is the Sinai. The south Sinai coast, from Sharm to Taba, seems to be fine – but any excursions inland (including to St Catherine’s) seem significantly riskier just now. One Egyptian travel agent I talked to said he’d recently refused to book transport from Sharm to St Catherine’s for a client – “I don’t want the responsibility,” he told me.

Would I travel overland between Cairo and Sinai just now? I’m not sure. I’d take advice before deciding. I might fly.

The whole of northern Sinai is off-limits to tourists.

Middle Egypt – effectively, the Nile between Cairo and Luxor – is just opening up again to tourism. Visiting these places (Beni Suef, Minya, Assyut, Sohag) was never easy. For a time in the 90s and 00s, during an Islamist insurgency, tourists were barred altogether. Even if it’s possible to travel there independently now, from what I’ve been told you’ll very likely be assigned a police minder for the duration of your stay, both inside the cities and if you choose to head out to any archaeological sites in the countryside. I saw no other tourists when I walked in these places last month.

Elsewhere, Luxor and all points south are suffering badly from the lack of tourism just now. Group bookings are way down – which means independent travellers can reckon on quieter excursions and more rewarding encounters. Visit, and you’ll probably be welcomed like a long-lost relative. Who’s come to buy things. Lots of things.