Earlier this month, I received invitations to two unrelated Egyptian-themed exhibits, both taking place on the same day. Together, they brought into sharp focus the biggest challenge the travel industry may be facing in 2016.
At noon, I met with Zahi Hawass, perhaps the best-known (and most controversial) living Egyptologist. A former minister of antiquities, chief inspector of the Giza Pyramid Plateau and secretary general of the Egyptian Supreme Council of Antiquities, he has become the go-to expert on mummies and related archaeology for the History, Discovery and National Geographic channels.
Hawass was in New York to lecture at the Society for Ethical Culture and promote "The Discovery of King Tut," a privately organized exhibition of more than 1,000 replicas of items found in Tutankhamun's tomb. I had previously seen many of the originals in the Egyptian Museum in Cairo, but I was nonetheless wowed by this exhibit.
Hawass said he hasn't encouraged replicas in the past, but he is becoming increasingly distressed about the dangers posed to artifacts. The source of his distress is directly connected to tourism. "Without tourism, the monuments would deteriorate completely, with no money to restore them," he told me. "We need tourists."
My second stop that day was also on Fifth Avenue in New York, but a few miles uptown, at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
In addition to its impressive permanent exhibit on Egypt, the Met brought out additional artifacts to highlight the Middle Kingdom era. Richard Krieger, president of the Isramworld Portfolio of Brands, invited me to join a small group of travel agents, Isramworld employees and partners for a private tour of the display.
Krieger acknowledged that, as regards travel to Egypt, "the same numbers are not there" as before terrorism concerns rose through 2015, "but we're getting calls every week." FIT inquiries are slowly rising, and Karen Esposito of his group's department said she also recently received inquiries.
Jessica O'Keefe, director of sales, USA, for Egyptair, said she sees "a bit of a turnaround. The tour operators are ready to come back immediately. It's a product they know well and make money on."
But, she added, "It's the consumers. We need to let them know that people going there now are having a great time. We don't have the money for a consumer campaign in the U.S., but we need to get the message out."
If the airline is hopeful that travel advisers will help, it may need to do some educating there, as well. I had trouble finding a travel agent on the Met tour who, even if they themselves would now go, felt comfortable recommending Egypt at this time.
Suppression of travel over fear of terrorism isn't a new issue for the industry, though O'Keefe notes that "this is different. Even after the Luxor attacks [in 1997, when 62 people were killed], it was a matter of three or four months before people returned. The revolution was the turning point. It's been five years now."
One travel adviser, who went into great detail with me about her concerns over terrorism, added, "Then again, I was hit by a car at 70th and Madison."
Manhattan traffic (and automobiles in general) pose a far greater risk to travelers than terrorism, of course. The odds of being a victim of terrorism, as one opinion columnist in the Washington Post wrote in November, is less than being crushed by a piece of furniture.
He also wrote that, following 9/11, a researcher calculated that the number of people who died in car accidents because they were afraid to fly exceeded the number of passengers killed in the four planes that were hijacked that day.
The reason terrorism is effective is because it removes our sense of control. In a car, we put on our seat belt and drive defensively, which we feel mitigates risk. But the only way to mitigate fear of being attacked by terrorism abroad is to not travel.
I think O'Keefe's observation that "this is different" may be correct, and that it is not location-specific to Egypt. As Hawass told me earlier that day, "It can happen anywhere. It happened in Paris. It happened in Istanbul."
That's not exactly a sales pitch to travel, and neither would it be helpful to incorporate statistical fatality charts into the vacation booking process. But countering fear with logic does have a supporting role, and regarding emotional inspiration, I was pleased with the response I got for my proposed slogan "Be bold, travel freely" ("Motivating the American traveler in 2016," Jan. 4).
It used to be that, with an eternal destination like Egypt, one could always postpone a trip with the belief that the monuments and antiquities wouldn't change much over the years.
Hawass' linkage of visitors and preservation makes the opposing argument.
We may soon see how powerful an incentive curiosity is. Hawass said he is proposing a new exhibit of never-before-seen artifacts to be displayed at the Egyptian Museum. Cairo's new Grand Museum is still on schedule to open in 2017. And the proposal that Queen Nefertiti's tomb may lie behind the wall of Tut's tomb is a very exciting prospect.
For Egypt, perhaps, time and tombs will trump terror.