Why the return of river cruise operators to the troubled region – including Viking and Riviera – is something that should be applauded
In 2010, 58,000 Britons took a river cruise on the Nile in Egypt, but by 2016 that number had dwindled to just 3,600, a decline of almost 95 per cent. In those six years a lot happened, beginning with the Egyptian revolution in early 2011, which started as young groups took to the streets to protest against president Hosni Mubarak’s increasingly violent regime. The optimism that accompanied that uprising subsided after the 2012 elections saw the Muslim Brotherhood, and Islamist Mohamed Morsi, take power. A coup d’état led by the minister of defence, General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, deposed Morsi within a year, and el-Sisi was elected in 2014, remaining president to this day, despite allegations of human rights abuses. Among all that, there have been several terrorist attacks – including the destruction of a Russian plane in 2015 that killed 224 people. It’s been an incredibly difficult few years for the Egyptian people, and it really doesn’t make for great reading for customers thinking of holidaying in the region.
Yet, more recently as the country has stabilised, there have been murmurings within the cruise industry that, perhaps, it’s time to return to the Nile, once the non-European river of choice for Brits. Tourism to Egypt in general has declined hugely – from 15 million in 2010 to 5.3 million in 2016 (down 63 per cent) – but, curiously, the drop-off has been far greater for cruise. That 260,000 Britons still visited Egypt last year suggests the desire to see this incredible country still exists – so how much of it, from a cruise point of view at least, has this been down to the lack of capacity? It will be interesting to see how much of an impact Viking River Cruises’ decision to launch a ship on the Nile has (see p12). Its Pharaohs & Pyramids itinerary, on the 48-passenger Viking Ra, will launch in March 2018, joining Uniworld, Discover Egypt and Abercrombie & Kent (who have all remained in the region) in sailing the river. Charlie Bateson, head of product at the latter, recently told The Independent that visitor numbers for 2017 have increased by 185 per cent compared with the same time last year.
The future isn’t clear to see. The Foreign Office advises against all but essential travel by air to or from Sharm el Sheikh, and Thomas Cook has cancelled holiday bookings there for the winter of 2017/2018 and Summer 2018, which is terrible press for the country’s tourism industry. However, there is no advice when it comes to Cairo, where Nile cruises begin and end, and from where shore excursions to Giza are taken. If Britons are tempted back to the Nile is to be seen, but one thing is for sure – there are few rivers that offer so much.