Make way for Egypt, travel experts say

jrich@bradenton.comJune 1, 2011 

With the Arab Spring and all the demonstrations and fighting spreading through the Mideast, most might think Malaka Hilton, owner of Admiral Travel in Sarasota, is a little crazy when she suggests traveling to Egypt.

But she is persuasive in her argument that it’s foolhardy for travelers to write off a country so rich in history and so welcoming to visitors.

Hilton, whose father is Egyptian and who has 11 uncles and aunts living there, has traveled to the land of the Nile every year since she was 4. And she recently joined a delegation of travel agency owners and tourism officials from the U.S. who visited Egypt and Jordan in hopes of promoting travel to the region.

The group’s mission: to assess the current tourism situation and restore liaisons with travel partners in the region. Representatives of the National Tour Association, United States Tour Operators Association, American Society of Travel Agents and Adventure Travel Trade Association also went on the six-day trip in late April.

“We wanted to go and experience so we could go back and report,” Hilton said.

The report? Egypt and Jordan are safe and open to visitors.

“I saw a completely new Egypt,” she said. “People have always been very friendly, wanting to engage you in conversation. Now it is even more so -- they want to talk about the revolution. It’s completely safe.”

Even the most recent demonstrations last week with Egyptians pushing for quicker democratic reforms hasn’t deterred the group from its mission to promote the area for tourism.

“It’s going to happen all the time now because they are democratic,” Hilton said. “We see it in Europe, demonstrations and strikes all the time where they shut down subways and taxi cabs. As long as there is not violence, I’m not worried.”

The fight for democracy in the Arab countries has had a devastating impact on tourism.

“Egypt was set to have an amazing year this year for tourism, as well as the rest of the Middle East,” Hilton said. “People are coming out of the recession and traveling again.”

In mid-January, Hilton had 15 bookings for Mideast travel in 2011. But then the protests and demonstrations escalated. And, like others in the industry, Hilton had most of her bookings fall through. Airlines also were canceling flights.

And although things appear normal again in Egypt, images of the violence remain embedded in the minds of many travelers.

Cathy Greteman, chairman of the National Tour Association and president of Iowa Star Destinations, her travel agency, also dealt with cancellations.

She joined Hilton on the April trip and came back convinced to promote the area as a destination.

“The Egyptian people are a peaceful people as a whole,” Greteman said. “The country should be a wonderful place for us to go as Americans, because we certainly understand the desire for freedom.”

On the delegation’s trip to Tahrir Square, the center of the pro-Democratic demonstrations, they found a peaceful square and Egyptians, recognizing them as Americans, stopping them to talk about their freedom.

“I saw a quiet roundabout with newly planted grass, and as I stood there, speechless, I recounted the CNN videos, the crowds, the tanks, the fires,” Hilton said. “It was simply amazing to be there.”

A travel restriction still existed then, but it was lifted shortly after the delegation visited the U.S. ambassador in Cairo.

“We want to assist the 2 million Egyptians who work in tourism-related jobs, and we seek to minimize the impact of recent events on travel to neighboring Jordan,” said Terry Dale, president of the United States Tour Operators Association. “In doing so, we hope also to restore business for U.S. tour operators and travel agents.”

Egypt and Israel have been the top two draws in the Middle East with their religious connections and icons like the sphinx and pyramids.

Hilton and Greteman want it to stay that way.

Summer is traditionally a slower tourism season there and, with the backlash of the Arab Spring, hotels and restaurants are offering value-added packages with room upgrades and free airfare to lure travelers, Hilton said.

“We can only spread the word to our membership,” Greteman said. “We went to look at perception versus reality.”

If you want proof of the kinship Egyptian people feel for Americans, Hilton said you’ll find it on a sign in the Cairo airport, an advertisement by an Egyptian mobile provider:

“We must educate our children to become like young Egyptian people.” -- Barack Obama

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