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NOW IT'S THE TOURISTS' TURN IN EGYPT
By Michael Matthews
February 17, 2011 -- Now that Hosni Mubarak is finally out of the way and a measure of normalcy has returned to Egypt, there's a pressing need to get tourists back. Far more than most nations, Egypt depends on tourism and its economy won't recover if the tourists don't return.

According to some statistics I've seen, Egypt had been welcoming around 15 million visitors per year. The tourism industry generates one in eight jobs in the job-starved country, accounts for 11 percent of Egypt's economic output and brought in $13 billion last year.

Now, of course, Cairo's hotels are empty. Although a few had a good run during the demonstrations, thanks to an influx of foreign media, the world's journalists have largely packed their bags and trundled home. The cruise ships that ply the Nile are empty. Visitors are scarce at the pyramids and the Sphinx.

Yet every crisis is an opportunity for smart travelers like us. Now that Egypt appears safe again, it's bargain time. Hotels will be offering deals like one has never seen before. Anything to get a body in a bed.

My advice? Anytime in the next six months, pack your bag and go. I have been fortunate enough to visit Egypt on a number of occasions and I've found it one of the most hospitable places in the world. People are friendly and helpful and you almost never hear a bad word spoken of British or American tourists.

Start with Cairo. It has wonderful hotels on the Nile. You can bet that you will be able to get a room at one of the two fabulous Four Seasons properties in Cairo at a price that's well below what you would have paid just a couple of months ago. (There's one on each bank of the river and both are near the El Gaama Bridge.) The Oberoi, nearer to the pyramids, is another top-notch choice and it is surrounded by 40 acres of gardens.

Tied to one of the major lodging chains? There are four Starwood properties in Cairo, two Marriotts, four Hiltons, a Hyatt and four hotels that are part InterContinental's Priority Club Rewards. All will be available at bargain rates. You might even get a discount on the number of points required to claim a free-room award.

Sightseeing will also be big a bargain. Arrange to get inside one of the pyramids, which almost always requires a private guide. They'll be eager to have you. A private guide was always relatively affordable in the good times, so they'll be for hire at a discount now. And there won't be lines, either. You can probably even afford your own car and driver, too.

The food in Cairo is amazing and among the best in the Middle East. Dining at one of the innumerable cafes on the banks of the Nile is fun, delicious and inexpensive. I'd avoid the nighttime river cruises, however, because they are not worth the price. The shows are tacky and the food is blah. I'd also avoid food from street vendors. They call it Farouk's Revenge in Cairo. (Farouk was the corpulent, extravagant monarch of Albanian-Egyptian descent deposed in 1952.)

You'll also be tempted to see a belly dancer. The only one I've ever seen in Cairo turned out to be a middle-aged woman, carrying far too much weight for my taste. She wobbled and jiggled for about an hour, collected a mountain of tips from the salivating locals and left. I was informed that she was the best belly dancer in Egypt and also one of the wealthiest women in the country. C'est la vie.

Are there drawbacks? Certainly. Cairo is one of the most crowded, dirtiest cities in the world. Traffic is smelly and dense with Mercedes fighting for space with donkey carts and the occasional camel. But that's a part of the city's allure beyond the antiquities. (By the way, it looks like there was no "looting" at Cairo's famed Egyptian Museum. Professional thieves exploited the political chaos on the streets to pull off a daring heist.)

Bribery, called baksheesh, is also part of daily life in Cairo. At least it was in Mubarak's Egypt. You pay at the airport to get in, then pretty much dole out money to all and sundry people, including the hotel desk clerk to get a room upgrade. Dollar bills are fine and probably much appreciated since the Egyptian pound (currently worth about 17 U.S. cents) is as wobbly as that belly dancer. I once paid a guide the magnificent sum of US$2 to be able to get into one of the pyramids. I then paid another dollar to sit on a camel to have my picture taken with the pyramids in the background. That's even cheaper than photoshopping a phony.

The bottom line, though, is the bottom line: Egypt desperately needs your travel dollar and it doesn't matter if you dole it out hundreds at a time at a five-star hotel or one at a time as baksheesh.

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ABOUT MICHAEL MATTHEWS Michael Matthews has managed and marketed fine hotels around the world for more than 45 years. He spent 14 years in Hong Kong building the legendary Regent International group. He has also worked with St. Regis, Ritz-Carlton and Rosewood hotels. Matthews is currently based in Arizona. He began writing Do Not Disturb in early 2004.

THE FINE PRINT Joe Brancatelli makes this space available to Michael Matthews in the spirit of free speech and to encourage editorial diversity and the wider discussion of important travel issues. All of the opinions and material in this column are the sole property of Matthews. This column may not be reproduced in any form without the express permission of Michael Matthews.

This column is Copyright 2011 by Michael Matthews. JoeSentMe.com is Copyright 2011 by Joe Brancatelli. All rights reserved.