Dispatches from the Nile
Travel Weekly's Michelle Baran recently sailed aboard Uniworld's River Tosca for its maiden Nile River cruise. Read her dispatches:
• Dispatch, Nile cruise 1: New ship a work in progress
• Dispatch, Nile cruise 2: An aquatic sales ambush
• Dispatch, Nile cruise 3: You don't have to be a history buff
In addition, view our slideshow from Michelle Baran's journey on the River Tosca.
The allure of the Nile River is undeniable. One of the world's longest rivers, it winds between lush banks and desert plateaus and is dotted with some of the world's oldest and most impressive temples and tombs.
Thus, it's no surprise that the Nile's river cruise industry is thriving. There are more than 320 river cruise ships operating on the Nile, according to the Egyptian Tourist Authority.
U.S. tour operators and river cruise companies have been capitalizing on the Nile's convenient course through the must-see ancient Egyptian ruins for years, predominantly chartering overnight river cruise vessels.
But as the tourism industry in Egypt continues to develop, not everyone is satisfied with borrowing someone else's ship.
Luxury tour operator Abercrombie & Kent took the plunge to acquire its own ships in Egypt years ago with the 36-passenger Sun Boat III, a new construction on an existing hull, which entered service in 1993 (and was renovated in 2005); and the 80-passenger Sun Boat IV, built in 1996 (and renovated in 2006).
According to Scott Wiseman, president of A&K USA, the only way A&K has been able to offer a luxury experience in Egypt is to have complete control of its product, including having its own ships and A&K offices in Egypt to oversee its operations there.
"Our employees live up to our standards; they're not subcontracted out," said Wiseman. "The vessels themselves are amazing quality. You are getting that five-star experience."
Uniworld River Cruises, too, has decided to enter the Egyptian market with its own ship.
A seeming natural fit for a river cruise operator, Uniworld is actually the first U.S. river cruise company to build its own ship rather than charter in Egypt.
Uniworld, which has been in the European river cruising market for decades, decided it wanted greater control of its river cruise product in Egypt, and the result was the 84-passenger, all-suite River Tosca, which sailed its maiden voyage last month.
"Over the last two or three years, we definitely saw a lot of growth in Egypt," said Guy Young, president of Uniworld. "We saw an opportunity to dramatically increase our passenger numbers with capacity. The other thing is, wherever we operate, we are trying to elevate our product standard to match or come close to what we offer in Europe."
Young said that there were several factors that he believes contributed to the Nile's increasing popularity in the English-speaking market, which Uniworld caters to.
For one, "in the last five years, it's been a lot more stable, politically," said Young. "It's a once-in-a-lifetime destination, with incredible sites and culture. From a river cruise standpoint, it's incredibly set up."
Uniworld's attempt to bring the European river cruise experience to Egypt, however, has not been without its challenges. The ship made its maiden voyage on Oct. 19, after four canceled departures, and the River Tosca's interior still needs some finishing touches.
"The Egyptians are extremely willing to try and get things done. They've been extremely gracious," said Young. But, he added, "Fundamentally, what we have learned [is that] things don't move as quickly in Egypt as they do in Europe."
Which brings to bear the challenges in the Egyptian market overall. What Uniworld experienced in the building of the River Tosca is symbolic of the challenges facing Egypt and the Nile River overall.
Obstacles on the Nile
The Nile River is deceptive. On the one hand, it is one of the richest tourism resources in the world. On the other hand, the tourism experience on the Nile could still be improved.
Clearly Uniworld is making strides in upping the quality of the river cruise product on the Nile. But what Uniworld and other operators, such as A&K, often can't control is the environment in which they are sailing.
For one, there is the ongoing concern about security. While the country has experienced relative calm of late, there are signs everywhere that the Egyptian government and the tourism industry do not want to take any chances.
Whether it's the metal detectors tourists must walk through at many of the ancient Egyptian sites and at nicer hotels or the two armed soldiers who are stationed on the River Tosca's sun deck between Luxor and Dendera, the threat of terrorism still lingers.
Secondly, there is pollution. Clearly, Egypt can't keep up with its rapidly growing population or its growing tourism industry. Cairo, for one, is faced with an immense number of cars that make the city's smog problem visible to the naked eye. Along the Nile, the air is clean, but one can't help but notice garbage disposal posing a threat to the river's pristine nature.
The fact that most tourists are encouraged to drink bottled water, for instance, is clearly presenting a problem in the disposal of thousands, if not millions, of water bottles annually, some of which make their way into the Nile's waters and along its banks.
Lastly, with such economic disparity between those visiting Egypt and the Egyptians hosting them there, locals try wholeheartedly to capitalize even slightly on the country's lucrative tourism industry, which can be a nuisance. Whether it's the baksheesh, or tips, requested for any service, including in bathrooms or for taking a photo of someone dressed in traditional garb, or the incredible hassling that takes place in the souvenir markets at the ancient sites, it can be at times both amusing and frustrating.
A river cruise of a lifetime
Challenges aside, the Nile still represents the ultimate river cruise experience. Between the round-the-clock desert sunshine, ideal for relaxing on the sun deck (most Nile ships have small dipping pools), the beautiful landscape and beyond impressive historical sites, the Nile truly has all the necessary elements of an incredible vacation.
Just last week, A&K hosted a meeting with its travel agent advisory board in Egypt.
"We did talk a lot about tourism and promotion," said Wiseman. "It's a fantastic time to go and visit. They continue to invest smartly into the historical sites and archaeological finds. I heard that Luxor is trying to position itself as a museum city. Things are strong there. For the fourth consecutive year, Egypt is No. 1 in growth as a destination [for A&K]."
And Uniworld, too, sees the River Tosca as a long-term investment in the Egyptian market.
"We obviously did have some challenges in terms of getting the ship ready on time," said Young.
But, he said, "we certainly don't regret the decision. We're in this for the long term. And it is a beautiful product."