How to travel responsibly in Egypt: tips before you go
From its ancient tombs to its elaborate temples, its undulating sand dunes to the lush Nile Valley, Egypt brings out the explorer in all of us. Before you dive in, take a moment to think about how you can minimise your impact on this piece of living history, and make travelling in Egypt a little easier for yourself in the process.
It’s no secret that Egypt’s tourism industry has taken a significant hit due to widespread unease about travelling in the region, with visitor arrivals plummeting from a high of more than 14.5million in 2010 to just 5.5million in 2016, according to Egypt’s Tourism Authority. But while Egypt has its problems, and you should always consider official advice before travelling, most tourist areas were secure and open for business during my visit in May 2017. Simply by going there, you can play a small part in keeping one of Egypt’s most crucial industries afloat.
Book a tour
I love travelling independently, but sometimes it makes more sense to take a tour. It makes a lot of sense in Egypt right now, where travelling on a tour can help to boost your safety, stimulate the local economy, and save you a great deal of hassle (especially in Luxor, which has an unfortunate reputation as the hassle capital of Egypt). I toured Egypt with small group operator Encounters Travel, which gave me the opportunity to focus on enjoying the country’s top sights and experiences while my terrific trip leader Waleed took care of the logistics.
I also chose to take several day tours in Cairo for reasons of convenience, safety, and a desire to tap into the local knowledge of the respective guides. I felt safe and comfortable in the company of my guide Walid who hosted me on several Error! Hyperlink reference not valid., and with Laila from Bellies En-Route, who took me on a wonderful food tour of the capital. While I never felt unsafe while wandering around downtown Cairo on my own, I don’t feel like I could have explored Egypt’s cosmopolitan capital – let alone the rest of the country – anywhere near as thoroughly, easily or safely if I had decided to go it alone.
Minimise your impact
Home to more than 90 million people, Egypt doesn’t need inbound tourists to add to its environmental problems. Minimising your plastic use is the easiest way you can reduce your impact while travelling here; avoid plastic bags and straws at all costs, and try to limit your use of plastic bottles by purchasing the biggest bottles you can, refilling your bottle from filtered water sources, or investing in a water filter (like the cool OKO water filter bottle) so you can avoid plastic bottles all together. Another important way to limit your impact on Egypt is to respect its antiquities – do not touch or climb on tombs, temples or museum displays, or remove anything from sites – such as rocks – as souvenirs.
Skip the camel ride
Camels are traditional beasts of burden in Egypt, and as such are typically treated more like machines than animals by their owners, many of whom beat their camels (usually out of sight of tourists) if they ‘misbehave’. Before opting for a ride around the pyramids, ask yourself if this is an industry you want to support, simply for the sake of a clichéd selfie.
It might seem like a no-brainer to dress conservatively in a Muslim-majority country, but a surprisingly high number of tourists I crossed paths with in Egypt seem to have missed that memo (a special shout-out to the 20-something woman in a micro pleather onesie at the Valley of the Kings). Show your respect by covering your shoulders and knees outside beach resorts and international hotels. Ignoring this custom can also be a safety risk – while showing some leg does not mean a woman is ‘asking’ for anything, in some cultures it can be interpreted as being – shall we say – available, which may put you in a compromising situation.
Don’t forget to tip
Egypt has a strong baksheesh (tipping) culture, so it’s worth knowing when and how much to tip before you travel. A tip is generally requested of you by anyone who provides a service. A general rule of thumb is to tip 10% at restaurants, E£100 for a full day with a guide, E£50 for a full day with a driver, E£3-5 for assistance with luggage at a hotel, and 50pt- E£1 for toilet attendants (yes, even if you have your own toilet paper, as attendants pay for the privilege of maintaining toilets; feel free not to tip if they’re super grotty though). It is not customary to tip taxi drivers if you have agreed on a price (as opposed to using the meter, which many drivers refuse to use). Politely decline the services of men who swoop in to help with your bags at Cairo Airport, or prepare to fork out E£3-5 for the assistance.
Spread your Egyptian pounds around
If you’re travelling to Egypt on a tour, it’s likely the bulk of your money will go to the tour company. Which is fine if it’s supporting local guides and businesses, but there are many more players in Egypt’s tourism industry who are really suffering from the downturn in tourism. Spread your money around by lodging at family-run hotels (I absolutely loved the Windsor Hotel in Cairo, a very affordable colonial-era relic run by a charming Coptic Christian family), dining at local restaurants, and buying souvenirs at local stores and social enterprises (such as the wonderful Association for the Protection of the Environment in Cairo, which teaches the garbage collectors of Cairo how to support the environment and themselves through the production of recycled lifestyle products) rather than at big hotels or at airports.
Be wary of ‘helpful’ men at temples
When exploring ancient Egyptian sites – especially in Luxor – you’re likely to be approached by guards or government workers wearing a traditional galabeya (long-sleeved robe) who will try to corral you into sections of the site that have been closed (typically for conservation purposes) or allow you to take photos in an area where it is otherwise forbidden. Resist the urge to allow your curiosity to support this kind of corruption – the sole motivation of these guys is to receive baksheesh for ‘helping’ you. Without tourists supporting it, this ugly business wouldn’t exist.
Thanks to Encounters Travel for supporting my trip to Egypt.