There's a new buzz on the Nile; you can really feel the optimism in the air. Ancient temples are being spruced up and and once again, the banks of the river at Luxor are stacked four deep with riverboats. Selfie-stick-wielding crowds are once more swarming over 4,000-year-old temples. While the latter may not necessarily be a good thing, you can't help but feel happy for the Egyptians, who depend so heavily on tourism and in many cases, saw their income wiped out overnight. The comeback of tourism also means more money for investment in preserving Egypt's incredible antiquities.
And this new-found optimism is reflected in the cruise sector, with the first major Nile river ship for many years, Viking Ra, launched this year; as well as Uniworld's recent announcement that it will be launching a new ship there in 2020 (In addition Celestyal Cruises has added Alexandria on itineraries for next year).
The following observations are based on a visit last week, our eighth to Egypt, in which we sailed from Aswan to Luxor on Sanctuary Retreats' newly refitted Sunboat IV, and talked to a lot of local people. This is what we came across.
What Went Wrong?
The Arab Spring uprising in 2011 was the beginning of years of political instability and terrorism-related disasters for Egypt. It's a sorry tale: political instability aside, Egypt has had to endure, among other things, the downing of a Russian airliner over Sinai in 2015; stabbings of tourists in the Red Sea resort of Hurghada; bombing of Coptic churches in Alexandria and Tanta; the hot air balloon tragedy over Luxor in 2013; and gunmen shooting at a tourist bus in Cairo. Tourism figures plummeted from 14.7 million in 2010 to around 5.4 million in 2016 but are now on the increase again; 8.3 million visitors came in 2017 and the 2018 figure is expected to be even more encouraging.
So What's Changed?
Promotional campaigns by the government, increased security in tourist areas, a period of relative political stability and pent-up demand -- in particular from the U.S. have all contributed to Egypt's comeback. A number of other factors have also helped drive this change, which include:
New Tourist Markets: Aswan airport was swarming with Chinese tourists; several new flights from China are opening up Egypt to a new market. Russian tourists are coming back, too, with charter flights likely to resume soon. We also encountered large groups from South America, Spain and Japan.
New docks in Aswan: Because there are so many boats docked in Aswan, where the Nile is relatively narrow, new docks are being developed all along the banks further out of town so that tourists and locals can enjoy unimpeded views of the river. This is no bad thing as a passenger; the Sanctuary Retreats dock, 15 minutes' drive from the city centre, was blissfully peaceful and with the vessels more spread out, you don't have to clamber across three other boats to get to your own. Or have the view from your cabin blocked.
New(ish) attractions: Not new, but the most recent to have been opened (2010) -- a sound-and-light show at Edfu temple, situated between Aswan and Luxor. It's striking; while the temple complex is smaller than Karnak, where most cruises include the sound-and-light event, it's nonetheless dazzling and the light playing on the ancient structures is beautiful.
"New" tombs: Some time ago, there was talk of creating replica tombs of the Valley of the Kings, and closing the originals for good. This hasn't happened -- there is a replica of Tutankhamun's tomb but you can still visit the original (incidentally, the replica tomb, opened in 2014, also includes entry to the house of archaeologist Howard Carter, who discovered Tutankhamun's tomb in 1922; now, it's a museum). What is exciting is the chance to visit two rarely opened tombs: in the Valley of the Kings, the burial place of Pharaoh Seti I, which will cost you 1,000 Egyptian pounds ($55) on top of the entrance fee to get in. Similarly, the tomb of Queen Nefertari in the Valley of the Queens is newly opened, after being closed for years -- another $55; the colours in the tomb were extraordinary.
The Grand Egyptian Museum: This billion dollar display of antiquities, under construction since 2002, is due to open in the first quarter of 2019, near the pyramids of Giza. It's five times the size of the Egyptian Museum in Cairo, which itself houses a spectacular collection, and will document 7,000 years of Egyptian history. Once it's up and running, this museum will be a massive attraction for visitors doing Cairo combined with a Nile cruise; it will, for example, house all of Tutankhamun's treasures in one location.
Archaeological activity: On Luxor's west bank, there's a massive dig going on to uncover the mortuary temples of the pharaohs buried in the Valley of the Kings. The temple of Kom Ombo near Aswan is undergoing renovations to protect it from groundwater from the Nile, with new relics being uncovered. A couple of years ago, a new area was opened to the public in the Temple of Queen Hatshepsut at Luxor, where renovations still continue.
New investment in ships: While there are still a lot of Nile cruise ships laid up, there are newcomers, too. Viking, for example; and our ship, Sanctuary Sunboat IV, which has just undergone complete renovation, emerging from dry dock in the guise of a very chic boutique hotel.
This is only a snapshot of what's happening on the Nile but our advice would be, go now, while there's still room for everybody. If this period of calm continues, Egypt could become very popular indeed.
--by Sue Bryant, Cruise Critic contributor