In empty Egypt, private viewings

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Douglas GollanMany agents and suppliers still warmly remember the 1992 ASTA World Congress in Cairo. On the final night, our Egyptian hosts literally rolled out the red carpet and covered the desert sands outside the Giza Pyramids with rugs, holding one of the travel industry's most memorable dinners.

For the more than 6,000 of us who were there for those five days, whenever "Egypt" is mentioned, we think first of that night and the incredible hospitality of the Egyptian people.

We work in an industry that, according to the World Travel & Tourism Council, supports one in nine jobs worldwide. And for many countries, Egypt among them, the impact of tourism on the economy is more significant still.

We all have read about what's going on there now, in the throes of the Arab Spring. I met last fall with Mohamed Hegazy, Egypt's tourism attache for the U.S.

Tourism is down by about half in the year since the "new" Egypt was born, and Mohamed invited me to see for myself if it was safe to travel in Egypt.

The readers of Elite Traveler, of which I am president and editor in chief, are ultra-affluent consumers who travel by private jet, so for the destinations they visit, they represent a potentially huge "average daily spend" for the economy. Moreover, they are opinion leaders whose behavior influences others.

With my pleasant memories of Cairo ASTA still fresh even 20 years later, I decided I would indeed find time to visit. Last month, I was able to tag 72 hours in Egypt onto a trip to Europe.

Egypt for the affluent

My objective was simple: to visit the pyramids, the Egyptian Museum, Valley of the Kings, the Temples of Karnak, the Luxor Temple, a Nile resort -- in other words, the places that would interest my readers -- as an affluent traveler, with a private guide and car.

The first thing that struck me on landing at Cairo Airport was its state-of-the-art international terminal with shiny, well-lit hallways and even a VIP meet-and-greet service similar to those in Singapore and Hong Kong.

With some VIP assistance, I was through immigration in minutes and out into the airy arrivals hall, waiting to be taken to my hotel. (By the way, immigration is a breeze at Cairo compared with New York Kennedy.)

The lobby at the Ramses Hilton was busy, but I saw few Westerners and heard nobody speaking English.

In this regard, my experience was consistent over the next three days. After being shown to my upper-floor room, the first thing the bellboy did was take me to the balcony to point out Tahrir Square, about a half-mile away.

Contrasts in Cairo

This was on Saturday, Jan. 21, just four days before the anniversary of the revolution. But even from this height, it looked peacefully disconnected from what I had seen on websites and 24-hour news channels that had been reporting about the anniversary and using year-old images of angry-faced crowds.

I saw normal Cairo traffic and a few pedestrians making their way on the street. I would walk through the square three days later, where the most activity I saw was a vendor selling corn. (You can see my photos at Elite Traveler's Facebook page; under Photos, look for the "Egypt Welcome 2012" album.) 

On my previous visit to the Egyptian Museum, I fought crowds and stood in long lines. I can remember a huge traffic jam waiting to access the Giza Pyramids. If my experience was typical this time around, your clients will have their own private Egypt.

Sadly, there was not a single other person waiting to enter the museum that houses the treasures of King Tut. I'll repeat that: not a single other person waiting at the entry gate. It was like Yankee Stadium in January.

In fact, my guide told me that she would normally be working 12-day stretches with no break at this time of year. Now, she said, she would probably only have three or four clients for the entire month.

The flights to Luxor were quite pleasant, especially compared with our in-and-out-of-bankruptcy legacy U.S. carriers. A 50-minute flight in economy class aboard a new Airbus A320 featured beverages, a snack, pillows, blankets and no extra charge to sit in the exit row.

My Facebook album shows the world-class attractions in and near Luxor with empty parking lots that normally would be filled up with tour buses and visitors enjoying the destination and spending money.

At Elite Traveler in 2009, we were doing research with our Ultra Wealth consumers. It was in the middle of the big "luxury shame" sham, and many of the very rich had cut back on spending. Not a great situation for a sinking economy.

At the time, the very wealthy told us that they felt it was time to go ahead and resume their normal lifestyle.

Part of that decision came from the realization that one can have all the money in the world but still not really control tomorrow.

I'm glad I returned to Egypt; my regret is that I should have taken my children along. Egypt is not a destination that should be put off for another time.

Douglas Gollan is co-founder, president and editor in chief of Elite Traveler, a global travel and lifestyle magazine distributed aboard private jets. From 1987 to 2000, he was group publisher of Travel Agent magazine.

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