All quiet on the desert front

Australian tour operators have Egypt on the itinerary, but holidaymakers are yet to to be convinced, writes Robert Upe.

Australian travellers have abandoned Egypt in droves, but tour operators here say it is safe to go back following last year's uprising in which the former president, Hosni Mubarak, was deposed.

"I strongly believe Egypt is perfectly safe for tourists at the moment," the managing director of Bunnik Tours, Dennis Bunnik, says.

He has recently returned from a two-week visit to the country, which is preparing for a presidential election in late May.

"All the key sites and attractions are open," Bunnick says. "Now is the best time to travel to Egypt, as visitor numbers are down [some estimates are that Cairo hotels are at 20 per cent occupancy] and the sites are less crowded.

"I visited the Egyptian Museum in Cairo twice and the largest number of people I counted in Tutankhamun's room of treasures was 15. I spent several minutes by myself, standing face-to-face with the death mask. This was unheard of prior to the revolution."

The managing director of Icon Holidays, Simon Hills, says he has no hesitation in recommending travel to Egypt. "You will literally have the pyramids to yourself," he says.

Both operators, though, advise it is best to travel with ground support - either with an escorted group or as an independent traveller with a guide and driver.

"Protests or any unrest are easy to avoid if you have people on the ground who know the situation," Hills says. "None of our guests has seen any trouble at all."

The Middle East product manager of Scenic Tours, Louise Hill, says her company restarted tours to Egypt two months after the January 2011 uprising.

"We have been running tours successfully since then and the situation has eased further in the last month," Hill says. "There are no longer daily protests. But it's about going on a holiday, so if people are not comfortable with the environment then it's their choice. We are a reputable tour operator and we wouldn't be operating tours if it was unsafe."

Egyptian Tourism Authority figures show that 10 million people visited last year, down 32 per cent from the 14.7 million that went in 2010.

Estimates on the decline in Australian visitor numbers vary between 80 and 95 per cent.

"The knock-on effect of this is that countries such as Jordan and Israel are also suffering," Hills says. "They are not necessarily stand-alone destinations for Australians, but places that are combined with a visit to Egypt." Australian Pacific Touring, for example, has Nile cruises with Cairo, Alexandria and El Alamein on the itinerary, as well as extensions to Jordan and Turkey.

Egypt packages for Australians are good value, Bunnik says, and "there are periodic specials being released."

The federal government's site warns Australians "should reconsider the need to travel" to Egypt and "exercise a high degree of caution" for the Red Sea resorts Luxor and Aswan.