Alone with King Tut

Michelle Jana Chan enjoys the novelty of sightseeing without crowds or queues.

'Usually there are buses all down the road here," my guide, Mostafa Shokry, says. I can see only two vehicles in the car park of the Temple of Philae. There are five tourists, including me, who have come to watch the evening sound-and-light show.

"We have seen a lot of trip cancellations and few new bookings," Shokry says.

It is not only Aswan, where the Temple of Philae is located, that is feeling the slump. The number of tourists visiting Egypt in the second quarter of this year dropped to 2.2 million, down from 3.5 million for the same period last year, according to the country's tourist board. The fall is linked to the uprising that resulted in the ousting of former president Hosni Mubarak earlier this year, as well as subsequent unrest. Last month, almost 30 people died during clashes in Cairo.

Such incidents continue to deter travellers, who are conspicuously absent during my visit. Not once do I have to queue to enter a tomb at the usually overcrowded Valley of the Kings. I even have tomb No. 62 to myself, which holds Tutankhamun's mummy. At sunset at the Temple of Luxor I walk among the colonnade courtyards in peace.

"I feel sorry for the Egyptian people," says Phil Hope, a British tourist on a week-long Nile cruise with his wife. "We have seen nothing to make us nervous." The lack of visitors, crowds and queues makes for a very different travel experience and the downturn is also giving rise to some excellent offers. The newly renovated Old Cataract Hotel in Aswan, for instance, is offering discounts of up to 50 per cent on rooms.

"I feel hopeful for the future," the hotel's general manager, Khaled Helmy, says. "It's the beginning of the peak season, we have a brand new product and prices are really good."

In Cairo, I can hear my own footsteps as I walk through the corridors of the Egyptian Museum and stand alone in front of the death mask of Tutankhamun. It is hauntingly quiet. At the exit, the souvenir shop is closed and its shelves empty. There are more waiters than customers in the nearby cafe.

I have a cup of tea in the shadow of the burnt-out building of the former ruling National Democratic Party, which towers above the museum and is a potent reminder of why there are so few tourists here. The building's window panes have exploded, loose wires hang from the ceilings and blinds are flapping in the wind.

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"There is a saying in Egypt," Shokry tells me. "Whatever Egypt goes through, it never dies. It will come back again. Until then I will sit at home and wait, and at least have more time to spend with the kids."

FAST FACTS

Getting there

Emirates has a fare to Cairo from Sydney and Melbourne for about $1730 low-season return including tax. Fly to Dubai (about 14hr), then to Cairo (about 4hr). Australians require a $40 visa for a stay of up to 30 days.

Touring there

A 10-day Heart of Egypt Cairo round trip that travels to Abu Simbel, Luxor and Aswan, and includes a four-night Nile River cruise, takes place on selected dates from January 9 and costs $3995-$4395 a person, twin share. Phone 1300 723 642; see scenictours.com.au.

A 10-day Splendour of Egypt tour, which includes a flight within Egypt and river cruising, costs from $4095 a person, twin share, for selected departures until May. Phone 1300 336 932; see aptouring.com.au.

Abercrombie & Kent has 10-day Egyptian Sojourn tours on selected departure dates, priced at $5623-$7249 a person, twin share. Phone 1300 851 800; see abercrombiekent.com.au.

Bunnik Tours has an 11-day Independent Egypt tour available until March 31, priced from $3220 a person, twin share. Phone 1300 664 170; see bunniktours.com.au.

More information

Egypt is best visited between October and May when temperatures are lower. The Australian government's Smartraveller site advises travellers "reconsider the need to travel" to Egypt and exercise a "high degree of caution". See smartraveller.gov.au; egypt.travel.

- Telegraph, London

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