Coronavirus in Egypt: Updates and Advice

It goes without saying that this is not a good time for travel, and the travel industry has been hit especially hard by this unpredictable catastrophe. Unfortunately, as is the case with any natural disaster, global health disaster, or any other type of massive catastrophe such as this, developing countries always feel the effects much worse than the developed world because they simply don’t have the money, equipment, supplies, or capacity to handle sudden societal or system shocks the way that our home countries do in the more developed and richer parts of the world.

The long-term outlook and perspective

First of all, let me start by saying that, without question, Egypt and its tourism industry will absolutely bounce back and recover from this. I have no doubt about that. There will be changes, and I think those changes will be for the better, such as an increased focus on hygiene and crowd control, but we will for sure see a safe re-opening of the country and its bucket-list historical sites and monuments in the not-too-distant future.

As unprepared as most of the world – and especially the developing world – was for this global health pandemic, it’s important to understand that being thrust into unexpected situations like this is nothing new for Egypt or for Egyptians. On average, Egypt’s tourism industry has experienced a major hit about once every ten years or so. In 2020 it’s the Coronavirus pandemic and the worldwide shutdown of travel. Almost a decade prior in 2011, it was the Arab Spring. A decade before that in 2001 it was 9/11.

Each of these were major global events that decimated inbound tourism to Egypt at the time, and impacted either regional or global travel and tourism on a mass scale for a while as well. But in addition to these, Egypt has also experienced less severe tourism industry interruptions at 3-4 year intervals in between each of these massive global shocks.

For example, a Russian airliner explodes over the Sinai in 2015 and Russian tourism to Egypt – which is a major market for the Red Sea resorts – goes to zero and stays down for years. In 2004, some crazies drove a truck bomb into the Hilton hotel in Taba, Egypt, which is on the far eastern coast of the Sinai Peninsula really close to the Israeli border crossing. Not surprisingly, they were targeting Israeli tourists who frequent that resort, and I don’t know anyone that would intentionally go to Taba anyway unless it was super close to you, as it is to Israel.

But you get the picture, right? About every 10 years there’s a major global event that severely impacts tourism to Egypt, and about ever 3, 4, or 5 years there’s some one-off incident that impacts tourism to Egypt in a more minor way. But my entire point in telling you about this trend is to drive home the point that Egypt is used to this. They hope for the best after each recovery, but they are accustomed to dealing with a minor dip every now and then and a major dip ever decade.

Egyptians are THE most resilient and resourceful people I have ever seen anywhere in the world. They make do, and they do so with dignity and patience because they know that the tourists will eventually come back. How can they not? Egypt has THE #1 bucket list item for literally everyone on the planet – the pyramids. And the country also happens to be packed with a lot of other bucket list stuff too, like the tombs and temples and golden treasures of the pharaohs of one of the greatest civilizations to ever inhabit the planet.

People aren’t going to suddenly just say – oh, I guess I can die without ever having seen the Pyramids of Giza, or King Tutankhamen’s treasures. Of course not. The monuments and sites and treasures that Egypt holds are at the top of everyone’s bucket list, and the visitors will certainly return as soon as it’s safe to do so.

Corona’s emergence in Egypt and near-term safety concerns

So speaking of safety, let’s talk about that for a few minutes. While it appears that the pandemic has peaked and declined significantly in the countries where it hit first, such as China, Italy, and Spain, as of right now it seems like it hasn’t even peaked yet in the next wave of countries it came to, including the rest of Europe, the US, and most of the developing world.

As you may know, Cairo is one of the largest cities in the world and one of the most densely populated, as are all of Egypt’s cities. Egypt was one of the earlier places that the virus showed up in because of the huge numbers of foreign visitors the country gets from the areas where the virus outbreak first occurred.

The first few cases

If you’ll recall, Egypt even made international headlines at the time because Coronavirus showed up early there onboard one of the Nile cruise boats down in Luxor. They quickly detected the cases onboard the ship and quarantined everyone on it for two weeks, but there was a period of about 48 hours before they knew during which the passengers on that ship were disembarking to visit the sites between Aswan and Luxor and interacting with the standard aggressive souvenir sellers at each one and such.

This likely contributed to a lot of the virus’ spread down in southern Egypt, while the uptick in tourism in late-2019 and early-2020 for the country as a whole likely introduced it in Cairo and Alexandria and elsewhere. So Egypt was one of the first countries in the world to act to try to prevent the spread of Coronavirus within its borders, but unfortunately some of those initial measures were rather superficial and, therefore, didn’t contain it.

Now, in Egypt’s defense, it’s very likely that the virus was already out into the population and spreading days or weeks before symptoms first appeared in the first handful of cases. We all know now how this thing works, whereas there was a lot of misinformation and just a plain lack of information in the first few weeks of the pandemic.

I was actually in Egypt – down in southern Egypt to be precise – when the news started breaking of Egypt getting its first surge of Coronavirus cases. I had been in the region for about five weeks in February and March, and I spent about three of those in Egypt, including with some clients that I was personally showing around Egypt, who are all now good friends by the way. I always tend to become life-long friends with most of the clients I personally show around Egypt.

At the time, the country only had three diagnosed cases up through the first week of March. On Friday, March 6th my group arrived. and my team and I picked them up from the airport in a few runs throughout the day as they arrived. The following day, on Saturday, March 7th is when the news broke about the Nile cruise outbreak as the boat arrived into Luxor after having sailed up from Aswan, and of course they always stop at the major sites in between along the way, including Edfu and Kom Ombo.

So we don’t know how long those infected boat passengers had the virus when some of them finally fell ill, sought medical attention, and were tested and quarantined on March 7th. But the standard itinerary for those Nile cruise boat trips – which as you all know I’m NOT a fan of at all, by the way, and still strongly recommend against – is they fly into Aswan or even directly into Abu Simbel, spend a day or two down in Aswan going around to all the sites, then disembark sailing north on the Nile, which flows north, of course.

Then they do stops at the Temple of Sobek and Haroeris in the town of Kom Ombo and the Temple of Horus in the town of Edfu, at of of which which of course they’re forced to do the aggressive shops gauntlets with souvenir sellers all up in their faces trying to get them to come into their shops and buy their crap. And they’re using the restrooms and buying snacks and drinks at the cafes outside of the sites, and so on. Bottom line, they’re interacting pretty heavily with the local workers at and around the sites as they make their way north towards Luxor.

Luckily with the boat on which the first outbreak was detected, I think they first passengers started showing symptoms before they got to Luxor and they managed to keep them out of Luxor, where they do same things as in the other cities except on a much greater scale because there are many more sites and opportunities for local interaction in Luxor.

However, I believe that what tipped everyone off that the first cases of sick passengers on March 7th might be Coronavirus and needed to be tested was the fact that another tourist on a previous Nile cruise boat had completed her entire itinerary and returned home to Taiwan where she fell quickly fell ill and tested positive. So she and many others on her boat and likely others had already been catching and spreading the virus before that news-making outbreak occurred and was announced on March 7th.

International ambuguity

Now, there was sort of an international incident surrounding that Taiwanese tourist because Egypt immediately accused her of bringing the virus into Egypt and introducing it there, but Taiwanese health officials quickly said they tested the DNA of her strain of the virus after she returned home and determined that it wasn’t a match for the strain going around Taiwan, which had and still has very few cases compared to everywhere else. So Egypt was saying she didn’t catch it in Egypt and she must have brought it from Taiwan, and Taiwan said the virus strain she had couldn’t have come from Taiwan and she picked it up in Egypt. Who knows? But the important point for us here is that Coronavirus was likely present and spreading in Egypt for days for weeks before it was detected.

Now, I will say that I don’t think it was pervasive in Egypt at that time, despite the conditions there that ordinary Egyptians endure, the population density, and so on. I say that because even a month or so later after I had finished up that last trip and returned to my home in Europe, I talked to friends and colleagues frequently who told me that they still did not know anyone who had contracted the virus and they were not seeing people in the streets coughing or sneezing or showing any of the classic signs of a respiratory infection.

Reports from the ground

Even if only a small percentage showed symptoms, there are so many in Egypt that it make sense that some would start to show symptoms in some places. But people I know and trust there were telling me that that just wasn’t happening at that time. Also, another long-time and highly trusted friend and colleague there told me something else that really made a lot of sense to me.

She said – my mother and sister live in a very local neighborhood in the heart of Cairo, and I have been staying with them to help care for my mother and make sure she doesn’t get sick because she’s very old. Their apartment is right across the street from one of Cairo’s largest hospitals, and if people were mass-infected and a fraction of those were forced to seek medical attention and some of those were dying, I’d be seeing ambulances arriving across the street all day and night and I haven’t seen that happening.

Also, she said, if people were dying of Coronavirus in the hospital, as they are in other places when it hits people, I’d see crowds of family members gathering outside the hospital and we’d hear the wailing of mourners that we always do in the Arab world when a family member dies. None of this has been happening here yet, so I don’t think it’s as bad as people think it is here right now.

Prevention measures

But that all that was back in March. I continued on with my group that I was with at the time because we were already there and they made the decision that they wanted to continue their trip, so I did start to see the government begin to mandate some initial measures, which were not always followed at the time. People came and sprayed tourists sites with disinfectant, though I’m not sure that helped much. Health officials came into the major hotels and made a big deal about checking the temperatures of all the hotel workers, but of course we know now – and really even knew back then – that that would only catch some symptomatic people.

But measures like that were touted at the time as giving the “all clear” for visitors to continue patronizing the hotels and sites. When we finally got back to Cairo and checked into our last hotel before they departed the next day, evidently they were supposed to check and record our temperatures, but we arrived super late and they never did, even though we had just come from Luxor which was supposedly the epicenter of the outbreak in Egypt at the time.

That group left and returned to the US on March 14th, and I left right after them on the 15th to return to my home in Spain where the world’s second-strictest lockdown after China had just begin the day before. But most of the rest of the world didn’t take the same measures as China, Spain, and Italy, which were the earliest hit by the virus, so the daily infections in places like the US and Brazil and Russia and across the developing world in Asia and Africa continue to climb and haven’t even peaked yet in many of these places.

Lucky for them, though, I think they’re benefiting now from the lessons learned early in the pandemic, and I’m hopeful that their peaks won’t be as debilitating for their societies and healthcare infrastructure and economies as was the case earlier in the year. But now let me go back and talk about how this specifically affects Egypt and the travel plans of everyone planning or wanting to go to Egypt in the next year or so.

Predictions and advice for future travel

The big question, of course, is whether travel generally and Egypt specifically are going to be safe in 3, 6, 9, or 12 months. Obviously none of us has a crystal ball, and if you do then hit me up on instagram please because I’ve got a few other questions too. But the best we can do is make informed best guesses and then plan accordingly and flexibly.

So I’m going to go out on a limb here and share with you all what I would personally do if I were you at this point in time and either had a trip planned to Egypt or wanted to visit Egypt soon. I’d do two things. First, I’d push my trip off to 2021. And second, I’d book it now and lock it in during 2020. Now let me explain both of those recommendations.

Forget traveling in 2020

For the first one, I think there are too many variables still in play in now in the summer of 2020 to bank on the travel industry being operational again by later-summer or even fall of 2020. My company, Egypt Elite, had quite a few clients booked on trips throughout the rest of 2020, and the earliest anyone has re-booked for is December 31st of this year. I honestly think and December will be fine, and Egypt is an absolutely incredible destination to spend a New Years Even once in your life, but as a general guideline I’d recommend targeting 2021 unless you have scheduling reasons that just work out best for December of 2020 and then I think you’ll still be fine.

Now, it should go without saying that a new norm in the travel industry is going to be booking flexible travel. Traditionally, this has been much more expensive, I know. Refundable airline tickets are insanely expensive and the tour operator industry usually requires non-refundable deposits or even full payments in advance, and that’s for a lot of necessary reasons that we don’t have time to get into here.

Even travel insurance policies don’t let you simply change or cancel for any reason, unless you get a specific type of travel insurance policy called a “cancel for any reason” policy, which, not surprisingly, is quite expensive. Those also, by the way, go up greatly in price for older people. I’m not sure why since the presumed reason would be that older people have more health issues that might lead to them needing to cancel, and even regular travel insurance allows you to cancel for legit medical reasons. But anyway, I’ve seen many travel insurance companies and policies over the years, and the “cancel for any reason” policies are ridiculously expensive.

Moving forward, though, both travelers and travel industry companies are going to have to find a way to meet in the middle to make refundable travel a new reality. Travelers just aren’t going to book if they are going to get shafted later if there are future waves of Corona, or God forbid something new. But most travel companies won’t be able to simply absorb the hit from mass cancellations if something like this happens again. They’d just all go bankrupt because I don’t think that governments are going to step in over and over to rescue them again.

I think traveling to the other side of the planet might still be a bit risky in summer and fall of this year, but by late-November and December I think things are going to get sorted out. Hopefully the virus will have been brought under control by then even in the developing world, and if we’re luckily it will have died out. National healthcare systems in every country will have also learned to cope and will be better resourced to deal with respiratory illnesses by then, unlike three months ago when no one had enough ventilators or PPE. And clearly people are also going to be practicing better hygiene, distancing, and community care from now on, so this thing or anything new that pops up won’t spread as easily as it did in the good ole’ carefree days of just a few months ago.

So all that’s to say that I think things will be both back to and advanced to a state where we can safely and comfortably start traveling to our hearts’ content again by the end of this year, but as a general rule I just say 2021 to make it nice and round.

Take advantage of huge discounts in 2020 for 2021 travel

Now let me talk about my second recommendation – why you should go ahead and book your trip this year and not wait until 2021 to book and lock something in. As I just mentioned, the travel industry is about to become a little more flexible when it comes to changes and cancellations, at least for a while. This may not last, but for at least the next year or two the industry is going to build in some flexibility. How exactly that looks, I’m not 100% certain. Companies may build in flexibility by offering more travel insurance and putting it on customers to pay extra for added flexibility. Or more likely they’ll loosen some of their traditionally infamous restrictive policies.

For example, before this year airlines required virtually a fully declared war, revolution, or natural disaster at a destination to allow you to make changes to a reservation. Right now, all are of course allowing any and all changes, and most are offering full refunds too, except for a few douchebag airlines that are playing games with their customers. But there will come a point when these super-generous refund and change policies will be dialed back a bit, although I can envision them still being semi-flex even next year and maybe the year after.

But this I can guarantee you 200% – companies are going to offer the most generous change and cancellation terms for travel booked this year, in addition to the deepest discounts on future travel. I think you’ll see a phase-out of these great discounts and flexible terms over the course of the next few quarters, with the late-summer bringing us an uncoordinated campaign from travel industry players to encourage people to get back on the go and book travel for 2021 to support the travel industry’s recovery. Then as people start traveling again in Q3 and Q4 of 2020, and especially in 2021, those discounts and offers and super-flexible terms are going to disappear and prices will either a) go back to normal or b) even get a little more expensive than they were before because the cost of providing travel services is going to be greater in the post-Covid era.

Trust me on that point. That’s something that not a lot of people are thinking about yet, but airlines are going to have to spend more money to comply with heightened requirements and they’ll be forced to carry less capacity, which will mean an increased cost of service delivery. Same for restaurants and hotels and entertainment venues, etc. So a year from now, travel might be more expensive as everyone feels comfortable doing it again and wants to go go go again, but the cost of it is going to be higher and will have to be passed onto the customer.

But if you’re a smart cookie, you’ll plan out and book your 2021 and 2022 travel now, this year in 2020 so you can take advantage of the “get back to traveling” initiatives, discounts, and offers. Trust me on this too – companies in that travel industry are going to LOVE you for supporting them and booking future travel in this down year, and they’ll reward you for it too. And after the industry gets back on its feet again, not only are the deals and promotions going to go away, but the new cost of travel is going to go up noticeably.

Egyptians are settling in for the long haul

But to get back to what’s going on in Egypt on the ground right now, I have to say that I was not too impressed with the initial response there and I don’t think measures were implemented quickly enough in response to the first few outbreaks, with too much “everything’s fine” PR and a lot less of a serious crackdown at first for fear of scaring the tourists.

But I think once Egypt realized that tourism for at least the first half of the year and most likely all of 2020 was just gone no matter how much bad PR they tried to do, they morphed into survival and resilience mode and hunkered down for the long haul to take care of themselves and each other and instead of the country’s image.

Egypt is one of those societies where families live together for generations, and they do this specifically for the purpose of taking care of each other through thick and thin. Egypt doesn’t have any sort of social security system or safety net. It’s every person for himself or herself there, and the family truly is the backbone of Egyptian society and their survival, especially in times like these.

But Egypt also has a strong sense of community. People there take care of others they know too. I’ve seen this characteristic manifest time and time again there among friends and colleagues where someone they know will be in need and they will barely be getting by, but they’ll share what they have or go out of their way to go across town to help someone else; and when I say go across town in Cairo I mean travel 2 hours across a fraction of the city just to drop something off or do something for someone.

Egyptians are incredibly giving and hardworking and empathetic, which is why you just fall in love with them when you spend some time there and get to know them on a personal level. But during this crisis, they seem to have gone into survival mode and community support mode and they’re waiting it out and now they’re doing the best they can to stay safe and get through this colossal unexpected depression that Corona has really caused for the country and its economy.

But Egypt has been one of the top – if not THE top- bucket list destination for literally everyone in the world for thousands of years, and they’ve been dealing with invasions and plagues and wars and revolutions and everything in between throughout that entire time. Egypt knows how to endure and persevere better than virtually any other civilization or people on the planet and throughout history, and no stupid Coronavirus is going to change that now. I promise you.

So Egypt is still going to be there when you’re ready to travel again, and by then I guarantee it will be even better because the GEM will likely be open and that’s truly going to be the most spectacular museum in the entire world, and I can’t wait to show all of you around Egypt when the time comes or at least hopefully meet many of you when you visit Egypt!

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