It's 9.45pm at Le Tarbouche, a dinner-boat docked on the Nile in Cairo. Ahmed El Khadem, chairman of the Egyptian Tourist Authority, tucks into a plateful of busara ("a dish in existence since the pharaohs") and gazes at the Nile, deep in thought, akin to a modern-day Sphinx. On the river, feluccas and floating restaurants decked in purple, pink and blue bulbs light up the night like slothful fireflies. "Egypt is not just about the Nile and the pyramids, you know," opens the genial tourism chief. "The upcoming new developments will be as grand and iconic as everything Egypt is endowed with."
While the world cannot dispute the unbeatable grandeur of Egypt's monolithic monuments or its 5,000-year history, what Khadem is also referring to is the scale of Egypt's investments, especially in the new north coast: development projects that won't give you a penny change from $500 million. On the drawing-board are five mega-tourism sites that are set to change the face of the country. "Some of these are so expansive," he says, "they are going to be the size of Dubai." Like Dubai, the North African country relies heavily on tourism, which accounts for almost 12 per cent of the economy. In 2005, Egypt received 8.6 million visitors and that figure was expected to go up another 10 per cent last year.
Statistics apart, Egypt's legendary attractions continue to act as tourist magnets and there will only be more. Eminent Egyptologist Zahi Hawass estimates that about "70 per cent of Egypt's treasure is still unexplored". It's little wonder that the standing joke in Egypt is that "if you dig anywhere, you will find something". Egypt's new antiquities showpiece, the Grand Egyptian Museum, being built near the Giza pyramids, will exhibit 150,000 artefacts when it opens in 2010.
Right now, the country is finding ways to accommodate more visitors by adding 145,000 hotel rooms to its existing 172,000 over the next five years. Egypt's combination of river, beach, ancient sites and golf courses makes it an exciting incentive destination. Luckily for the country, hospitality, like the Nile, runs deep in Egyptian blood and is best exemplified by service personnel at Cairo's hotels, who are effusively warm and genuinely friendly. "It's the people who give our hotel the extra edge," says Olivier Masson, general manager of the 365-room Four Seasons Hotel Cairo at Nile Plaza.
The hotel boasts the trademark Four Seasons luxury – it spends $700,000 a year on flower arrangements and has an art collection worth $10 million – and service standards that are vital to bringing in the business visitor, who has more spending power than the average tourist. The hotel is adding another ballroom this year and yet another property, the Four Seasons Hotel Alexandria, is slated to open at San Stefano early this year.
Across the road from the Four Seasons Hotel Cairo at Nile Plaza, the 714-room Grand Hyatt Cairo is an all-time favourite with corporate travellers – the Grand Club reception on the 30th floor for executive guests is busier than the lobby reception. The hotel prides itself on its riverside rooms and restaurants. The building next to it, previously a Le Méridien property, is being proposed as a 200-room Park Hyatt with an expansive spa facility, to open in 2008. "Cairo holds great appeal for the MICE market," says Thierry Bertin, area director of marketing for the Middle East at Hyatt International. "Where else can you dine by the pyramids or hire a jet for a party at the Obelisk? It's one of the safest cities in the world."
In light of the current climate, Egypt's hotels are not taking any chances with security. The instability in Lebanon and Egypt's own recent track record of terrorist atrocities in Sharm El Sheikh and Dahab have forced establishments to invest heavily in security, both obvious (screening, metal detectors) and subtle (hidden cameras, bullet-proof glass windows).
On arrival, one spots the first signs of potential change – at Cairo International airport they're getting ready a new Terminal 3, scheduled to open in 2007. A 350-room hotel, Le Méridien Cairo Airport, will open at the new terminal in January 2009. Egypt may also implement the open-skies policy next year, which will bring more airlines and inbound tourists. Cosmetic changes on the roads include the new canary yellow cabs. The metered, air-conditioned taxis are a welcome respite from the old, battered, black and white Fiats and Volvos that make up most of public transport. It's always advisable to start an hour early for meetings: the traffic in densely populated Cairo can get notoriously heavy.
On either side of the Nile, more concrete wonders are sprouting up. The Fairmont Cairo, scheduled to open in late 2007, will be a 552-room hotel overlooking the river. A 171-unit Marriott Executive Apartments Cairo Nile Dolphin is coming up in Giza for long-stay guests. It will include a marina, shopping centre, health club and conference centre.
Among other future developments will be the 330-room Holiday Inn Citystars, due to open in April 2007 and targeted at the cost-conscious business traveller. It will even boast a separate crew lounge for airline staff. The hotel will complement the existing, 790-room InterContinental Citystars next to it, which boasts 184 residence suites, a casino and mall. The hotel has a separate VIP entrance and lounge, and a 12-room spa, housed in a three-level pyramid, is opening in September. It is also planning to add six more meeting rooms, four royal suites and a women-only floor to cater to the growing number of female business travellers in Cairo, according to David Traynor, area director of sales and marketing at InterContinental. Even older hotels are reinventing themselves – late last year, the Sheraton Cairo launched clubrooms for executive guests.
"There's no dearth of things to do when on business in Cairo and that's an incentive by itself," says Salah Khoory, general manager of Dubai-based National Store, who flies to Egypt regularly on work and stays at the 1,250-room Cairo Marriott Hotel & Omar Khayyam Casino. Originally a 19th-century royal palace, the hotel is currently undergoing a $40-million renovation that will restore its former glory by late 2007. Its sister property, the 428-unit JW Marriott Hotel Cairo, a corporate resort with 12 conference rooms and an 18-hole golf course, is closer to the airport and had the distinction of hosting Bill Gates when he visited on work last year.
It is pertinent that Dubai-based companies are now looking at Egypt with a lot of interest. Etisalat is set to become Egypt's third mobile operator, the Al-Futtaim Group has plans for a mega city project, and Emaar Properties has projects worth $4 billion in the country. Emaar has announced a convention centre, hotel, serviced apartments and shopping complex at Smart Village, and has also signed up for a waterfront redevelopment project with Bibliotheca Alexandrina (Alexandria Library). Nader Mohamed, executive director of international operations at Emaar, calls Egypt "an emerging market with strong economic fundamentals".
Today it is the north coast, with untouched white beaches and salubrious Mediterranean weather, that is emerging as Egypt's fastest-growing hospitality hub for year-round tourism. "As latecomers in the Mediterranean market, we are only going to benefit as we can learn from others," notes tourist chief Khadem. There are plenty of new hotels coming up on the Mediterranean coast, including the Almaza Bay resort, developed by Travco Group and Germany's TUI, which will offer a golf course and five hotels, the first of which, the 395-room Almaza Beach Resort with a 250-metre private beach, is already open. Further west, the Porto Marina development will boost the profile of Egypt's Mediterranean coast with a 1,000-berth marina, yacht club, mall, hotel and golf course.
In terms of infrastructure, the Red Sea area is not lagging behind. InterContinental opened their Taba Heights Resort in July featuring a marina, and an 18-hole golf course is due to open in October. "The Red Sea will do for Egypt what Costa Rica did for North America, it will see a lot of European retirees," predicts the Hyatt's Bertin. One of Egypt's mammoth tourism projects, developed by the MA Kharafi Group of Kuwait, is coming up at Port Ghalib alongside the Rea Sea. In anticipation of its success, the Red Sea's Marsa Alam International airport, which opened in 2001, is being expanded to cater to nearly 2,000 visitors an hour by the end of this year.
What the view will be like as the flight descends is anyone's guess.
- The Great Pyramid of Giza is the only one of the seven wonders of the ancient world still standing. "But there are as many as 600 pyramids and 30 museums all over Egypt," explains Sherehan Mamdooh, an English-speaking tour guide.
- Tutankhamun's treasures at the Egyptian Museum in Tahrir Square are unmissable. The museum is the biggest repository of Egyptian treasures, with more than 100,000 objects. It smells of the past and will transport you back to ancient Egypt — set aside several hours here.
- Cairo is renowned for its belly dancing and the city's nightclubs, casinos and hotels provide a range of entertainment. Business travellers to Cairo swear by the Abou El Sid nightclub in Maadi. Overlooking the Nile, the Rotisserie Belvedere restaurant at the Nile Hilton, Cairo's oldest five-star hotel, is worth checking out — but bookings are essential.
- Take a lazy ride on a felucca. An hour's expedition on the Nile costs LE 80 (£7.15).
- The Khan El Khalili bazaar dates back to the 14th century and comprises a network of narrow streets. You will be confronted by a tide of touts hard-selling anything from pyramids to papyrus paintings to funeral masks — don't be surprised if they even propose marriage to you.
- Cairo parties into the night — the city does not sleep. Tahrir Square is one of the liveliest areas. The night air is pleasant and great for strolls by the Nile as you soak up the Art Deco buildings and bustling street life.
- Three days isn't enough to do Cairo justice: if you're on business, opt to add an extra two days to fly to the north coast or cruise the Nile between Aswan and Luxor, an absolutely breathtaking journey.
Cairo Marriott Hotel & Omar Khayyam Casino
16 Saray El Gezira Street, tel +202 735 8888, marriott.com
Rooms from US$200
Four Seasons Cairo at Nile Plaza
Corniche El Nil, Maglis El Shaab, Garden City, tel +202 791 7000, fourseasons.com
Rooms from US$402
Grand Hyatt Cairo
Corniche El Nil, Garden City, Roda Island, tel +202 365 1234, cairo.grand.hyatt.com
Rooms from US$282, 24-hour cancellation fee applies
Omar Ibn El Khattab Street, Heliopolis, tel +202 4800 100, citystars.intercontinental.com
Rooms from US$201
Rates are for a midweek stay in early February, include taxes and are room-only unless stated.
Served by British Airways and Egyptair from Heathrow. Also served indirectly by carriers including Air France, Lufthansa and Swiss. Return online fares with BA (ba.com): first class £2,984, business class £1,932, premium economy £828, economy from £304.
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