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The ups and downs of post-revolution, low season Egyptian tourism (July 13, 2011)

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"Let me show you around, friend." The desperately cheerful Luxor shop owner is the fourth in as many minutes to insist that he holds only my best interests at heart, and that he has absolutely no intention of taking me to his shop. Both of us understand, take as read, the insincerity of these promises.

I would never have thought to see touts with more hustle than in the maze-like medinas of Marrakech and Fez, but the Egyptians take second place to no one in the "separate tourists from their liquid assets" category of the capitalist Olympics. Even among Egyptians, Luxor merchants are considered particularly aggressive. Or, to spin it more kindly: Luxor may be the easiest place in the world to find a new "friend."

The land of the Nile lies quiet these days. Whatever the democratic vices or virtues of the Arab Spring, the January 25 uprising has driven a stake through the heart of the tourist industry. Archaeological sites accustomed to thousands of daily visitors now host a handful. Hotels are almost empty: during a dinner cruise of the Nile in Cairo, I was amazed by how few rooms were lit up in the grand downtown hotels. The Four Seasons, the Sofitel, or the Sheraton now seem similar to the quiet, eternal sentinels of Abu Simbel, darkly guarding a river that does not really need them anymore.

To a tourist, the signs of the limited violence that followed the revolution are few, if significant. Sadly, one of the most obvious is the National Democratic Party building, put to the torch by protestors during the demonstrations. The political implications of this act of patriotic arson are obvious, but economically unfortunate: the burnt-out hulk overshadows the Egyptian Museum, reminding Cairo visitors of present dangers.

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It feels like the nation is holding its breath until the September elections, hopeful that they will bring a renewed sense of normalcy, and fearful that they will not. Our guides have ranged in fervency from slightly to fanatically anti-Mubarak, but most have also expressed a wish for the protests to die down. They know how demonstrations are covered internationally. One Friday, while we were diving in Sharm el Sheikh, our divemaster took every spare above-water moment to check Facebook on his Blackberry, hoping that he'd see no traces of violence from the protests at Tahrir Square.

On a purely mercenary basis, I understand why some Egyptians wish that Mubarak had simply left the country, despite the fact that he would have walked off with quite a few assets. Instead, he's holed up in a hospital in Sharm el Sheikh due to "poor health." Sharm, perhaps more than any other area of Egypt, relies upon divers, beach lovers and other devotees of the Red Sea for tourism income. Mubarak's presence there has scared off much of the tourist dollar, on the not-entirely-ludicrous theory that someone attacking Mubarak might not be too concerned about collateral damage. Be that as it may, while we were there disruption was limited to two protests: a demonstration outside the hospital much-covered by local and international news, and a smaller demonstration of laid-off workers outside the Marriott, seeking government assistance with the rent. We dubbed this The Rent is Too Damn High protest.

The hot summer is always slow, but this very low season makes it an interesting time to be a tourist. With business down, hotels and tour operators are willing to cut some pretty fantastic deals, with four and five star hotels suddenly springing within range of the budget traveler. Some chains are offering free room upgrades, others complimentary breakfast. While government-run tourist sites have not come down in price, tours guides and restaurants will readily negotiate. Given that we saw more violence in Morocco than we've encountered thus far in Egypt, there's a lot to recommend the Nile to a cost-conscious traveler right now.

That said, it's not all wine and roses, although most of the negative aspects of Egyptian tourism are vastly outweighed by the positives. Hotels operating with skeleton crews may not charge first-class prices, but they also can't offer first-class service. (That said, they offer hot water and working plumbing, which immediately sets them apart from some of our budget hostels.) We had our first theft from a hotel room at the Sheraton Dreamland in Cairo. A year without incident in our accommodations had left us complacent, so we didn't use the hotel safe for everything. That this was unwise is a blinding flash of the obvious.

Our taxi driver from Luxor to Aswan implied that the revolution has left certain areas with a great deal of autonomous power. This came up in the context of speed bumps, which have proliferated on the Luxor-Aswan highway as locals used them as a substitute for absent policemen. The driver blamed these for the increase in travel time from two and a half to over three hours. Frankly, given the insane disregard for life and limb shown by Cairo drivers, I was actually happy for the hinderance.

But while the revolution has engendered a certain degree of disorganization, the chaos often has happy endings. We had hired our driver because we had to make our Luxor-Aswan trip at the last minute. We'd initially booked a Nile cruise upriver, with Travco, only to have them send us an email at 4:57 pm the day before we were to travel to Aswan, telling us that the Jaz Jubilee had been cancelled. There followed an anxious day of phone calls and emails, in which it was unclear whether we'd go Luxor-Aswan, Aswan-Luxor, or simply not take a cruise at all.

It turns out that most of the Nile fleet is not operating due to the lack of tourists. But in the end we were transferred to the M/S Princess Sarah , an even nicer boat with an excellent staff and better facilities. Thus, I write this from a wood-panelled bar, floating off the bank of the Nile in Aswan, surrounded by a handful of German and Russian families making the trip with us.

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Sunset from the sundeck of the M/S Princess Sarah

So while there's a bit of sharp practice from touts, and you need to be careful with your wallet, there's much to recommend traveling to Egypt this year. Keep a bit of a thick skin: every person that you're likely to encounter will be both happy to have a job, but obviously hurting from a downturn in business. That being said, this may be the best time in living memory to have an Egyptian holiday.

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