With world-famous water sports including unsurpassed scuba-diving and snorkelling, impressive new conference facilities, government-sponsored hospitality training programmes and more culture than you can shake a stick at, Lucy Taylor realises Egypt is far more than just ancient history.
Egypt has long been famed for its natural beauty and rich history, but as traveller needs have changed over the past decade, with tourists demanding that their holiday tick more than just the culture box, the country had to take a long hard look at what else it had to offer. And finally, this effort is paying off.
Topping ‘best destination' lists, breaking its previous tourist records, the country has gone from strength to strength this year - and there is more to come.
The Egyptian Tourism Federation has signed an agreement with the Cornell University School of Hotel Administration to provide a variety of online learning courses.
Picking up the pace
A recent surge in the number of visitors to the country has allowed for rapid growth in the travel and tourism sector - and according to Egyptian Tourism Federation (ETF) chairman Ahmed El-Nahas, the past couple of years have been particularly positive.
"We've seen a major increase in tourist arrivals in Egypt over the last two years," he says. "In 2006, we had over nine million tourists visit Egypt. The plan was an annual increase of 1 million, which was surpassed in 2007 when the arrival figures reached 11 million tourists."
"The Ministry of Tourism and the Egyptian Tourist Authority's efforts will hopefully reap 14 million tourist arrivals by the end of 2008," he adds.
This sizeable goal is looking increasingly achievable, as more and more international tourists - and consequently hotel groups and companies - succumb to Egypt's diverse appeal.
"Egypt is blessed with an ancient civilization dating back to the days of the pharaohs," points out El-Nahas. "It benefits from historic sites from that era as well as those from the Ottoman empire and Islamic rule in addition to many other influences."
"Its geographic location is ideal - at a key point where east meets west, making it easily accessible from most countries," he adds. "The location also means that Egypt has a coastline on two seas, the Mediterranean and the Red Sea, catering for tourists all year round."
But it is not only tourists who are making the most of the seaside locations; hotel groups are expanding their presence in the region at an incredible rate.
InterContinental Hotels Group (IHG) vice president commercial, Middle East and Africa Tom Rowntree says the company has noticed a general strengthening of Egypt's tourism market.
"The investments that the Ministry of Tourism and associated bodies have made in terms of building up the tourist attractions, from the pyramids to the beach resorts, has resulted in an emergence of destinations," he comments. "And with so many options, there's something for everyone.
"Its history needs no introduction - it's an ideal place for those looking for a cultural experience. Then for diving and water sports, even cruises, it's fantastic."Access into the country has also improved, as The Rezidor Hotel Group regional director of sales and marketing Craig Senior points out.
"The accessibility from Europe allows the leisure traveler to be in Egypt within three to four hours; combined with the current hotel rates, this makes for an extremely competitively priced vacation option," Senior says.
While traditionally the resort locations are driven by leisure travellers there's also increasing conventions and incentives business.
If increased hotel numbers are any kind of indicator of how a country's tourism industry will progress, then Egypt is clearly set for a bright future, with big name brands are flocking to the country to expand their regional portfolio.
IHG has had a presence in Egypt for more than 20 years, says Rowntree, and considers the country to be a "key market".
"In terms of existing properties we have two InterContinentals in Cairo, the Semiramis and Citystars - which is part of the first mixed-use development that came into play in the Middle East and also contains our newly opened Staybridge Suites, as well as an InterContinental Residence Suites. Then we also have an InterContinental out at Giza and three InterContinental resorts in Hurghada, Taba Heights and, just added to our inventory, our Port Ghalib resort which is in a mixed-use community development.
"We also have three Crowne Plaza in Sharm El Sheik and two in Port Ghalib, then finally we have two Holiday Inns in Cairo and Safaga," he says.
Rezidor also has a strong presence, with three Radisson SAS resorts currently in operation in El Quseir, Sharm El Sheikh and Taba as well as a Park Inn resort, also in Sharm El Sheikh.
The 392-room Hilton Hurghada, situated in an area renowned for scuba diving and water sports activities, also provides meeting facilities for corporate and business guests. "We also offer desert safaris," adds general manager Soha El Torgoman. "And we're in just the right location to allow guests to make a day trip to Luxor."
Business or pleasure
According to ETF director Ayman Altaranissi, the vast majority of visitors to Egypt are leisure and recreational tourists - but is the weight starting to shift?
IHG's Rowntree notes that there has been an increasing number of community and lifestyle developments serving the leisure market, but adds that there has also been a strengthening in the corporations who've got an interest in investments in Egypt, as well as an increase in the incentive markets out of Europe.
"Obviously the mix changes according to the location, so while traditionally the resort locations are driven by leisure travellers, there's also increasing conventions and incentives business."
The corporate segment is clearly one in which IHG sees potential; at its Port Ghalib property the group is to operate a convention centre with a capacity of 1800, that Rowntree hopes will "open us up to the incentives markets".
"And with our Cairo properties we are seeing a predominantly corporate market," he adds. "So really it's a mix of everything."Rezidor, on the other hand, is strictly targeting one market.
"Our target clientele is purely the individual leisure traveller," says Senior. "This is driven from the main European feeder markets including the United Kingdom, Germany, Switzerland, Italy and so on.
"In addition we are also seeing an increase in the local Egyptian market traveling from Cairo to the resorts at weekends and holiday periods."
Dusit Thani Lakeview Cairo general manager Jan Veduyn says the new property's clientele is in fact predominantly business, with corporate representing 65% and leisure 35%.
"To cater to the business clientele, the focus is on comfort, privacy, accessibility and ease for our guests to be home away from home," Verduyn explains.
It's not just hotels that are cropping up; a wide variety new developments is making Egypt an even more attractive prospect for both visitors and investors.
ETF's El-Nahas says the current focus is on developing on the Mediterranean coast.
"Four existing airports currently serve this area and there are major tourism projects being constructed along the 500km coastline, including hotel resorts," he explains. "Another area presently being developed is Marsa Allam, further south of Hurghada.
"This Red Sea resort town is undergoing major development, including the construction of a number of hotels."
Hilton's Torgoman adds that development in Egypt has now really begun to take off, explaining that the Egyptian government has activated legislation making it easier and more attractive for foreigners to invest in the country.
"The Egyptian Hotel Association has also been working on new regulations for the classification of Egyptian hotels regarding attributing five-star status," she says.
"The new system involves assessment in two phases - the first dealing with infrastructure, equipment, appliances and tools available within the hotel; the second with quality of service, through the mystery shopper evaluation scheme conducted under the supervision of the Egyptian Hotel Association and the Ministry of Tourism."Dusit's Verduyn adds that there is also strong development around the Dusit Thani LakeView's location in the New Cairo area. "This area is becoming one of the fastest growing areas in Egypt," he claims. "There are clusters of luxury residential housing and increasing numbers of corporate conglomerates are moving to the area."
Support from the top
According to global market research company Euromonitor International, the Egyptian Tourism Minister Zoheir Garana is "extremely optimistic" about the increase in the tourism sector, expecting earnings and total visitors to continue to rise in the coming years - despite the widely documented bombings in Dahab in April 2006.
The government demonstrated its commitment to tourist safety by heightening security around major tourist destinations around Egypt, and this April a meeting was held in Sharm El Sheikh to review the security of the country's tourists.
The country responded well to the threat and this focus on security - along with the resilience of international travellers - has been reflected in this year's growth, observes IHG's Rowntree.
Rezidor's Senior is similarly impressed with government efforts to promote the destination. "The Government's tourism office is present at all the major travel shows, with a dedicated Egyptian stand," he notes.
Hilton's Torgoman continues: "The government is vigorously promoting Egypt's potential all over the world, and is now heavily investing in infrastructural development in order to accommodate and sustain the current influx and forecasted growth for the region.
"It has also has set up several initiatives to support the hospitality industry," she continues. "For instance, The Egyptian Tourism Federation has signed an agreement with the Cornell University, School of Hotel Administration to provide a variety of online learning courses, which give an internationally recognised certification for hospitality and foodservice professionals working at management and executive level. There's even a 50% discount to Egyptian executives looking to advance their skills - in fact we have two from our management team enrolled in a masters program," Torgoman comments.
ETF's Altaranissi adds that the Ministry has invested over EGP 66 million (US $12 billion) into various projects and training programmes, including a training centre of excellence for tourism bus drivers and a vocational training center complex for hospitality staff.
Such appealing development prospects have naturally secured the interest of numerous hotels including some of the biggest global names, along with a host of other companies. So what is Egypt's plan to sustain this growth and tourist interest?
ETF's Ayman Altaranissi says the key is to promote Egypt as a destination. "Our sand, sea, sun and fun tourism products are the most popular," he says. "And while these resort destinations witness a huge increase in statistics, we also continue to see a rise in cultural tourism, and visitors' experiencing the country's many other places of interest."
The company's chairman, El-Nahas, adds: "The Minister of Tourism, being a man from the trade, has placed great emphasis on training in order to improve service standards in all sectors of the tourism industry. For the last two years active training efforts have been underway in order to cover the need of staff for all the projects presently under construction."
And the Egyptian Tourist Authority is presently working on a campaign to depict tourism facilities for an upper echelon of tourists from all over the world by promoting Egypt's luxury hotels, golf courses, and wellness spas.
"The plan is to offer new products in addition to cultural tourism and leisure tourism - then we hope to see a steady increase in tourist arrivals over the next few years."
It seems that Egypt has it all: natural beauty, enthralling history, decent - and steadily improving - facilities for business travellers and a wide range of quality hotels.
Most importantly though, it has captured public interest; and with the sterling efforts being made by the government, investors and the general population, this interest looks set to stay focused on Egypt.