While concern over instability in the Middle East has kept others away, recent months have seen a rise in the number of Belgians visiting Egypt.
As operation ‘Shock and Awe' resonated through the region knocking some 22% off the number of tourists visiting Egypt in March compared to the same month last year, 5.5% more Belgians were soaking in the joys of the Nile.
While official figures have not yet been released for April and May, Riham Wahid, assistant director at Egypt's tourism promotion office, says that there were no Belgian cancellations during the crucial Easter high season.
“Belgians have good geographical perspective and strong political awareness. They realise that Egypt is far away from Iraq,” Wahid offers in explanation of the apparent paradox. To drive home that message, the ministry of tourism has distributed maps to all its offices around the world marking the distances from various tourist sites in Egypt to Iraq.
“A lot of Belgians are repeat visitors, so they have first-hand experience of Egypt and its people,” she adds.
Since Napoleon's famous expedition sparked modern Europe's infatuation with Egypt, Belgians, like many other Europeans, have found that once they sipped from the waters of the Nile, they had to return to its banks.
Egypt's long millennia of history – the curse of generations of local schoolchildren – have been a bankable asset since ancient times. The mysterious pharaohs are the classic crowd pullers: the sober majesty of the pyramids, the extravagant ancient temples of Thebes, King Tut-ankh-amun's indulgent treasures.
Although they don't fire the popular imagination as much, Egypt's Coptic and Islamic heritage also pulls in the punters. Christendom's earliest monasteries pepper the desert, the most famous being St Catherine's in Sinai, while Islamic Cairo boasts one of the world's oldest universities and the centre of Sunni Islam, Al-Azhar.
“Egypt used to depend on its history. It mainly attracted visitors interested in culture,” Wahid notes. “Now we have a product to cater for every taste. Egypt has diversified into a wide variety of tourism: beach, diving, religious, desert safaris.”
Since the early 1990s, Egypt has been plugging its King Dude image. Its 315+ days of sunshine a year and hundreds of miles of Red Sea beaches draw in charter flights packed with pale Europeans looking for nothing more than to roast slowly on the beach. While the multicoloured underwater wonderland of the coral reefs attract droves of hardcore divers.
One maverick Egyptian director even has plans to take that image one step further by producing a local version of Baywatch in a mix of Arabic and English. While one can understand his desire to project an image of modern Egypt, the mind boggles at why he chose David Hasselhoff as his model, especially since the country doesn't even have much of a native beach culture.
Belgian visitors may also be curious to find out what mark their compatriots have left on the landscape of modern Egypt. Stella – not Artois but started by Belgians in 1898 – is the country's favourite beer.
A flamboyant Belgian nobleman and industrialist built the chic Cairo quarter of Heliopolis in an neo-classic Arabic-European style and gave the city its tram network. But Baron Empain's most eccentric addition to the skyline was his own residence. The now-deserted mock Hindu palace is home to hundreds of bats and towers ominously on the road to the airport.
Despite Egypt's potent mix of sun, sand and history, the fortunes of the tourism sector are constantly in flux on the back of global, regional and internal developments. Just as business recovered after the 1997 gunning down of dozens of tourists in Luxor by Islamic extremists, it took a bigger battering in the wake of 11 September, and then the war in Iraq claimed another unintended victim.
Tourism is one of the country's biggest foreign currency earners, bringing in nearly $4 billion a year. The three million people who depend on the sector for their livelihood have been feeling the crunch in the last 18 months.
But the prospects of recovery may be swifter this time around. “Tourism appears to be picking up already after the war, but we have to wait for the latest figures for confirmation,” says Wahid. She and her colleagues at the office have been engaged in an intensive promotional campaign. This has included billboard and television advertising, travel fairs, and flying journalists and tour operators to Egypt to see the situation for themselves.
The office recently organised a whistle-stop weekend away to Cairo for travel writers from Belgium's top newspapers. “It was hectic but all the journalists had a good time,” says Ellen Jacobs, a Belgian colleague of Wahid's who has lived in Cairo and speaks Arabic. “We got a lot of very positive exposure.”
Wahid admits it is too early to tell what impact this will have, but she is hopeful the good press will attract more visitors to enjoy Egypt's legendary hospitality.
A shortened version of this article appeared in the 13 June 2003 issue of The Bulletin