Journal: Saturday 9 December 1995
Cruise boats may seem a little touristy to the seasoned traveller but there’s no denying that they are an excellent introduction to the country. Tourists, cocooned under the boat’s protective awnings, are dealt a metered amount of visits ashore, shepherded by their guides who gradually create a coherent picture of Egypt’s venerable past. Western sensibilities have no opportunity to be offended by the shabby poverty of Egypt’s reality. But there is also a great experience of timelessness and peaceful tranquillity on the Nile as the boat glides by small villages and farms little changed since pharaonic times, where young boys still play naked in the river while mothers wash their dishes and grandfathers wash their buffalo. To sail the Nile, is to voyage into the past.
The floating hotels come in many shapes and sizes ranging from ultra-modern five-star palaces to more modest and older boats or even a paddle steamer or a dahabeyah. The River Nile is an ideal tourist environment which has brought visitors to the country for thousands of years, but the real industry of tourism was only born when Thomas Cook began to organise cruises and package tours to Egypt in the late nineteenth century. Using romantic dahabeyahs, the wooden sailing boats of that earlier age, he created an atmosphere of a country house-party for the duration of his twenty three day cruise. Cook’s Tours were expensive and his wealthy guests expected only the best. The boats were fitted with comfortable furnishings imported from England, and white-gloved Egyptian waiters in spotless robes served English canned food prepared by European chefs. The attraction of the dahabeyah was that the itinerary was flexible and the boats could dock wherever the guests wished. It is interesting to note that the itineraries established in those bygone days by Thomas Cook are very close to those used today, at least on the Luxor to Aswan stretch of the Nile. The only difference is that tourists are now transported to the monuments in coaches rather than by donkey.
In 1922, the publicity surrounding Howard Carter’s discovery of Tutankhamun’s tomb brought a new wave of visitors to Egypt. Egyptomania took hold of the world’s imagination like a cult and went a long way towards the promotion of tourism, which by the year 2000 had reached a total of four million visitors. These visitors are concentrated in the areas of Cairo, Luxor and Aswan where there is certainly enough to see in these three regions to keep anyone pleasantly occupied for many years and for my own first few visits I was happy to stay within these confines.