June 3, 2011
By, Bruce Feiler
The Semiramis Hotel in Cairo is located just off the Qasr al-Nil Bridge in the heart of Africa’s biggest city. Roughly half the rooms overlook the Nile and are priced higher than those on the opposite side, which overlook downtown. When I checked in, in early March, the hotel was largely abandoned, with both tourists and business travellers shunning the city that was still reeling from the 18-day revolution that toppled Hosni Mubarak. Still, I shocked the attendant behind the desk when I requested a room on the backside of the hotel, with no view of the river.
“Why do you want to stay there?” she asked.
“Because I want a view of Tahrir Square,” I said.
The historic youth uprisings sweeping the Middle East – reaching 20 countries in the first five months of the year – are remaking politics, international affairs, and relations among the Abrahamic faiths. But they are also having an even more immediate impact on the largest people-to-people exchange between the Muslim world and the west: tourism.
Casual travellers have abandoned the region. Tourism in Egypt is down 65 per cent from a year ago, reports the Cairo government, representing a loss of $2.27bn in the three months since Mubarak fell. In Tunisia, the decline is 40 per cent, while in Yemen cancellations have reached 75 per cent. Bookings in Syria are near zero.
But for travellers who are daring thrill-seekers, or just plain history buffs, the combination of once-in-a-generation events, coupled with rock-bottom prices and no queues, makes visiting such regions particularly alluring. So what do you need to know?
I have spent the past 25 years travelling for a living, including to some unstable places. These include the Kurdish war zone in extreme eastern Turkey; Iran; and a harrowing trip to Iraq in the middle of the war in which I rented body armour, was airlifted into Baghdad, and hired armed security to take me to biblical sites across the country.
Even my honeymoon was caught up in international conflict. When Linda and I were married eight years ago, we vowed to go to a place neither of us had been. At first I planned a trip to Mongolia, which was cancelled because of the Sars outbreak. Next on the list was Jakarta and Bali, which we had to call off after bombings in Bali. Finally, I planned a trip to Morocco. Six weeks before our wedding, bombs exploded in Casablanca. “Terrorists never strike the same place twice,” Linda said, and we went anyway. We had La Mamounia and other hotels to ourselves.
Still hungover from its revolution, Cairo these days is full of hope, tension, and uncertainty. On the plus side, all tourist spots are open, from the Valley of the Kings near Luxor to Abu Simbel in Aswan and the Egyptian Museum in Cairo, which had been closed during the height of the turmoil. During my visit, I went out to the pyramids in Giza. The site was the emptiest I’ve ever seen it, which gave it a rare sense of intimacy, but meant the vendors were more eager than ever for commerce.
When I slipped past the “No climbing” signs, a guard hurried over to ask for a bribe. My Cairene companion snapped, “There’s been a revolution. You can’t do that any more!” The guard slunk away in shame.