Thriving Ya'lla Tours takes plunge with cruises

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Ankh 1Ya'lla Tours USA is enjoying a bumper year to Egypt, recording double-digit, year-over-year growth thanks to the enduring popularity of the destination as well as market initiatives, such as Nile excursions on its own dahabiya, or small sailboat, and commissionable shore excursions for passengers traveling on large cruise ships.

According to Ya'lla President Ronen Paldi, the Portland, Ore.-based operator is recording growth in Egypt bookings of 25% over 2009. "Egypt, along with Israel and Jordan, is almost recession-proof," he said. "We experienced a 2009 that was much better than 2008, we're seeing it again this year and we're already seeing [increased] bookings for 2011.

"The trend just keeps continuing," Paldi added. "And I think that's due to some aggressive, unusual marketing."

Keeping it private

A prime example of that unusual marketing is the selection of private shore excursions, commissionable to travel agents, that Ya'lla offers to Mediterranean cruise passengers arriving in the Egyptian ports of Alexandria and Port Said.

The shore excursions include one or two days in Cairo and/or Alexandria and El Alamein, with van transportation; city, museum and archaeological site tours; some meals, such as a dinner cruise on a Nile felucca (another type of sailboat); and a guide. Clients can also choose to overnight in Cairo and rejoin their ship at another port.

Ya'lla has offered the excursions for several years but really began pushing them at the end of 2008, when the recession kicked in and the market softened a bit.

"When times got very tough ... it was important to make sure we could offer unusual products that would really make a difference and provide a value that would otherwise not exist," Paldi said. "The trend was that people were still cruising and spending money on cruises, and if that was the case at the end of 2008 and in early '09, that was the market we went after."

Paldi said the commissionable shore excursions are selling well because they're a sort of "win-win-win": for Ya'lla, travel agents and the customers they share.

"The clients get a private tour that maximizes their time. ... If the customers don't want to spend anytime shopping, we don't do that," he said.

"Second, travel agents make a commission," Paldi added. "If agents are interested, they can create a profit center that would otherwise not exist. And in a year like 2010, that can be very challenging."

Ya'lla sets sail
Having successfully courted passengers sailing on other companies' ships, Ya'lla is now dipping its own toes into the Nile cruise segment, floating a new boat, the Ankh 1, between Esna and Aswan as part of its nine-night Heavenly Egypt itinerary.

The Ankh 1, the first in a planned fleet of at least two, is a six-cabin dahabiya. The six cabins boast their own bathrooms and shower facilities but are not air-conditioned, "because the Ankh 1 only has a small generator and is mostly powered by sailing," Paldi said.

He added the Ankh 1 would appeal to more adventurous clients who'd like to see the Nile from a different perspective.

"It's not a yacht, but it is a private vessel, just for you, cruising the Nile," he said.

The boat might not have A/C, but it does have a kitchen that Paldi described as "just amazing." Dahabiya passengers and their chef plan menus together, and each day the cook goes to local markets along the Nile to buy produce and other ingredients.

"That's really one of the attractions, because it's not mass-market cruise line food," he said. "It's experiencing Egyptian cooking in a really exciting and different way."

Ya'lla offers pricing based on numbers of passengers booked on Ankh 1.

"If a client is traveling with his or her partner, it's one price," he said. "But if two couples or four people travel together, not only does the price per person go down, but we also guarantee giving them the private dahabiya just for themselves."

Going local, if not native

Other popular Ya'lla products in Egypt include desert adventures, either from Cairo down to Luxor or in the western desert between the oases of Siwa and Bahariya.

"We're finding that four nights from Cairo to Luxor is becoming very popular, staying every night in another place, including one night that you stay in desert tents," Paldi said. "Along the way, you see the White, Black and Mushroom deserts."

Novel products aside, Paldi credited a degree of Ya'lla's success in Egypt to its having established a local subsidiary in the country three years ago.

"It's not only that all operations are under one wing, it's also been a standardizing of the quality," he said. "It took, and it still takes, a lot of work to get all the elements to be standardized for upmarket and service-conscious [customers].

"We've accomplished that, and it's become a signature element for us," he added. "People know what they're getting, and they're very happy."

Visit www.yallatours.com.

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