Is Egypt Safe for Tourists?
IS EGYPT SAFE FOR FOREIGNER TRAVELLERS?
Egypt has been making news headlines recently, but not for the reasons the country would like to— over the past several years violent extremist attacks against tourists as well as local Coptic Christians have taken place. These range from bombs placed near tour buses to abductions and roadside shootings.
These attacks are nothing particularly new— the worst incident in the country’s history committed against foreigners was the 1997 massacre of 62 tourists in Luxor— but the resurgence of attacks against tourists in 2017 and 2018 have certainly damaged the country’s reputation and tourism industry.
The post-revolution, post-coup government in Cairo is eager to re-establish tourism operations again, as the industry is one of the most important in the country and employs approximately 10% of the Egyptian population directly.
The result of this has been a significant increase in the number of security service personnel in Egypt, as well as armed tourist police accompanying tour groups around the country. Additionally, the authorities have banned international tourists from entering certain regions of the country, particularly the Western Desert and area around the country’s border with Libya.
But does that mean Egypt is a “safe” destination for foreign tourists?
The answer to that question really depends on you. By and large, the statistics and numbers are on your side. In 2018, 5 million foreign tourists visited Egypt, and 99.99% of them left without any incident of violence whatsoever.
A bit of savviness can go a long way in staying safe, much like the precautions you would take in any other country. Attacks are extremely rare, and if they happen they are more likely to target religious minorities and government instalments, so definitely keep a good sense of your surroundings when visiting these areas.
The groups that attack tourists are looking to destabilize the country, so major tourist sites would be considered more prone to attack, and the government has responded appropriately by significantly increasing the number of police and armed guards at these locations.
I have travelled both with groups and independently around Egypt, including four visits in the last two years, and in my personal experience the country is fascinating, chaotic, soaked in history, people are kind, and never once did I feel unsafe in Egypt.
When I lead groups in Egypt, we keep an armed member of the tourist police with us on our bus or van, at tourist sites and around the cities, as this has become commonplace these days. I’d honestly prefer to not have an armed guard with us, but it’s actually the law for groups above 10 people travelling together, and any tourist groups that include American citizens.
The armed escorts are not needed, but the government does not wish to risk the safety of foreign tourists and their tourism industry, so they are extra cautious. I hope the situation relaxes in years to come and the country can re-gain some confidence when it comes to the unhindered movement of foreign tourists in Egypt.
Of course individual travellers are not subject to the same rules, but road blocks manned by tourist police and members of the Egyptian military or Ministry of the Interior may force individual tourists to turn around or prevent them from gaining access to certain places or regions.
So is Egypt “perfectly safe” for foreign tourists? No. But nowhere is. Have I found Egypt safe as a destination to bring curious, engaging foreign travellers? Absolutely; and I wholeheartedly recommend people visit Egypt.
HOW TO STAY SAFE IN EGYPT
Here are a few pointers for staying safe in Egypt:
Avoid congregating at the entrances and exits of tourist sites. Purchase your tickets quickly and enter the sites. When exiting, do not loiter around the exit. The same rules go for airports— get in, get out, don’t wait around.
Avoid banned locations— i.e. the Western Desert and North Sinai— until the security situation improves. It can easily be argued in the case of the Western Desert there is no real security threat to savvy foreign tourists. The bigger issue at hand is the government has decided to ban entry to foreign travellers and road blocks have been set up. While it’s entirely possible to “slip through” these check-points, I don’t recommend doing so, as this puts you in a precarious situation with the Egyptian authorities.
Be extra vigilant in sacred sites and congregation points for religious minorities, specifically Coptic Christian monasteries, churches and communities. By all means you should visit these places; the Coptic community is one of the oldest in Egypt and they can offer unique insights on Egyptian society, history and so much more. This being said, Islamic extremists are known to attack the Coptic community, specifically at their churches, monasteries and transport to and from these locations. Maintain an extra degree of vigilance when visiting, and perhaps schedule your visits to be off-hours from major religious services.
When in cities, use Uber or Kareem to get around. These services are much safer and more reliable than taxis, and the pricing is transparent. You’ll save yourself a headache, and travel safer this way.
Carry plenty of water and Egyptian pounds, it can get hot out there and many places will only take local currency. Best to carry plenty of 20s, 50s, and 100s Pound bills.
Be polite, but firm with hawkers and sellers at tourist sites. Otherwise they will not let up and you certainly do not want a crowd forming around you.
Baksheesh (i.e. tipping) is common in Egypt— at restaurants, hotels, on the street, this is all part of travel in Egypt and is expected. Again, carry plenty of 5, 10, 20 and 50 Egyptian Pound bills (exchange rate is about 17 per USD to use for tipping. If you have them, keeping a bunch of 1 Pound coins is useful for using the toilets at tourist sites (none are free).
Dress appropriately. When visiting tourist sites (archeological) it’s perfectly acceptable to wear shorts, t-shirts, tank-tops (both men and women). However, when in Egyptian society— cities, towns, villages, etc, it’s important to dress way more conservatively.
As a rule of thumb, the more rural you are, or the older the part of the city you are in, the more conservative you should dress. For men this means long pants and at least a t-shirt. For women this means arms, legs, shoulders should be fully covered and a light head scarf should cover the majority if your hair.
This dress is also required if you are planning on entering mosques. Keep in mind, many active mosques have separate entrances and areas for men and women. Conservative dress deflects a lot of unwanted attention, especially for foreign women travellers.
ARE THERE ANY PLACES I SHOULD AVOID?
Currently, it is suggested (and somewhat required) to avoid all travel to North Sinai and the Western Desert. This is both the suggestion of many country’s foreign affairs travel warnings, as well as the Egyptian Ministry of Tourism.