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Saturday, 30 January 2010

Recollections - Egypt as a Tour Leader

I’ve talked about Greece so I thought I’d have a go at Egypt now – especially as I decided to stay here.

Egypt is a very different place to Greece. Greece is part of Europe. Egypt is dry, hot, dusty and depending where you go you are either in part of Asia (Sinai) or Africa. Either way, you are now in the “Third World” and in part of the Middle East.

Tourism is handled very differently here. The Government is very aware of the potential tetchy situations that may arise because of other conflicts in the Middle East and is anxious to ensure they do not disrupt the tourist industry. Tourism is the main earner and the Government seems to know which side the bread is buttered and any potential terrorist activity is to be thwarted at all costs. You will often find regulations that cause problems, delays or hassles for Egyptians are miraculously wiped away if they start to pose the same problems for foreign nationals here. Many of us are, of course, immediately recognizable as foreign because we have different skin colour and features. It doesn’t always work – I have a friend who was in Egypt for quite a few months working who was from Dominican Republic. He was always treated as an Egyptian because he looked Egyptian. For example, sometimes while I was working for a Dive Centre in Makadi Bay the staff bus would be stopped and all the Egyptians asked for ID and to explain where they were going. He was always included in this group and had to make sure he always had his passport with him. As someone who is very white by local standards I was never asked any questions – nor to produce any ID.

Most of this is done in the name of “security” and of “protecting the foreign guests”.

This is understandable, I suppose, when you think back historically and find out just what a dent in the tourist industry was caused over the years by various terrorist activities in Sharm el Sheik, Luxor and Cairo. This is something the Government can’t afford, financially or politically, to allow to happen again.

Anyway, I digress. I wanted to talk about my experiences here as a Tour Leader.

When I arrived to start my posting I flew into Luxor. The plan was to spend 1 night on a Nile cruise boat to see what they were like as I would be receiving guests having a twin-centre break from one of these cruises. I would then spend 1 night in one of the company’s hotels in Luxor. In between I would see Luxor as the guests see it by doing the extended tours of the East and West Banks.

I have to say that Luxor is a really wonderful place. It is very lively and colourful. The monuments are a joy for anyone with even a small amount of interest in the history of the Pharaohs and Ancient Egypt. It has been described as the largest open-air museum in the world with 85% of the world’s ancient monuments assembled here. It does not disappoint.

However, the journey from the airport to the cruise boat was an eye-opener. After a long day travelling I opted to sit and look out of the window rather than trying to engage in conversation. This way I had a good look as the passing scenery. The Nile Valley is very lush and green (unlike Hurghada built on the edge of a desert it does actually rain here). The sugar cane, maize, rice and other crops are lovely to behold. However, you also have to be prepared to see the abject poverty in which the people are living. The ‘houses’ are often nothing more than animal shelters with the people living in the open air on the roofs. There are many donkeys on the streets of Luxor pulling the carts along with the various wares from the farms and other items for sale in the city. It makes it a very colourful place.

When I transferred to Hurghada we had to come in a convoy. This was, apparently, part of the tourist protection. Every convoy had armed police interspersed among the coaches and other tourist vehicles, plus 1 at the front leading and one taking up the rear. No-one was allowed to overtake the lead car. Also, if you were on a coach full of English or American guests you had your own armed bodyguard along (not all nationalities got one of these – depended on the political tensions at the time). The drawbacks to the convoys were that tour companies were not free to set their own departure times and you could have 300 or more coaches descending on Luxor or Cairo (same system applied to Cairo) at the same time causing problems for the attractions and overcrowding in some. Also, in the convoy itself, every vehicle was racing and jostling for position to be the first to arrive – in some attractions only the first so many could get into the ‘extras’ like the tomb of Tutankhamen in Valley of the Kings. This meant the driving was much worse than normal and the lead car would often be clocking up speeds of over 120km/h with the coaches following suit. There were always spare coaches at the back in case any broke down – passengers would simply transfer to the new coach and the operator could sort their own coach out later. However, the convoys proved to be very dangerous with extremely poor driving practices (yes, difficult I know, but worse than usual) and there were quite a few accidents, some of which were fatal. As the convoys were originally started in order to prevent tourists being killed it seems ironic that it was the convoys themselves that ended up doing the killing! Anyway, thankfully about 6 months after I arrived the convoys were stopped. So far they have not been re-started and I don’t believe there are any plans for this at the moment. The new ‘free travel’ arrangement seems to work well.

However, again I ramble on!!!!

I arrived in Hurghada and, as is usual for this line of work, proceeded to enjoy the main excursions on offer as part of my resort orientation. I visited Cairo and went inside a pyramid, went into the desert in a 4x4, experienced a semi-submarine, a snorkelling trip and so on. I’m sure you get the picture.

After a week in Hurghada becoming oriented it was time to start work proper.

At that time I was the ‘sole rep’ for Hurghada and El Gouna. I had to look after 3 hotels in Hurghada and 3 in El Gouna. This involved lots of driving (see earlier blog) but also gave me a wealth of insight into the travelling public. Here are my experiences.

It pays to remember that, unlike Greece, Hurghada and El Gouna do not have very many repeat guests. Over 80% are new visitors and many of these think in terms of a holiday in Egypt being a “once in a lifetime” experience.

It is also necessary to realise that the accommodation here is a very different proposition. There is very little self-catering. Most accommodation (and all my guests were in this type of accommodation) is in hotels. I’m not talking small either. Some of the hotels have 1000 rooms. My hotels tended to have around 300 to 500 rooms. SOME guests would be on bed and breakfast and a very few on half board (options only available at 2 of my hotels) but the majority were on the “all inclusive” package which is found everywhere here for all nationalities. It is, in effect, the norm for tourists to Hurghada. This covered all meals and, between certain hours which varied a little between the hotels, all alcoholic drinks as long as they were made with local alcohol. Now remember Egypt is a predominantly Muslim country. They make alcohol here but I don’t think anyone tastes it. If it looks the right colour when it’s finished and the chemical tests show the right alcohol level it’s bottled and sold. Some of it tastes really bad but, on the other hand, some isn’t so bad in small quantities with a mixer. Some of the local lager beers are actually quite OK and a couple of the local wines are really quite palatable but these wines are not normally available in hotels offering ‘all inclusive’ unless at an extra charge.

I found that there are several distinct groups of travellers – I wonder which one I fit into!

First, and perhaps for me the easiest to deal with, are the ‘savvy’ travellers or ‘experienced’ travellers. These travellers know what to expect. They have done research into the culture, the country and the accommodation. They have travelled enough to know that nothing is going to be like it is back ‘home’. They know how to behave and what is or is not acceptable. Some will have money and some will be less well off but either way they have done enough research to make sure they have enough with them – not just for the things they want but also for emergencies. They are usually well-insured.

They are easy to deal with because they don’t complain very much. When things don’t go according to plan they tend to chalk it up to experience and carry on – one more thing they’ve learnt in their travels.

However, easy as they are to cope with, they are not the rep’s favourite guest. As a rep you are not only supposed to ensure you guests have a good time. You are there to SELL EXCURSIONS. These travellers do not buy much. Those with less money are savvy enough to get themselves where they want to be. I had guests disappear for several days at a time. One couple used public transport to do the tours they wanted in Luxor and sorted out their own entrance into the various temples and tombs. Another couple made their own way to Aswan for 2 days fishing on Lake Nasser.

Fortunately, those with money will often opt for comfort so will buy from you. They may even pay extra for the more comfortable options such as visiting Cairo by flight instead of enduring 6 hours each way on a coach. But, in general terms you do not really see much of these guests. If they do complain then you can bet the complaint is justified and you really need to do something about it.

Next we have the well-to-do or ‘money no object’ traveller.

Fortunately, these are few and far between. They have money (in England we would refer to them as “new money” as they have earnt this. Well done for making this amount of money but the behaviour sometimes leaves something to be desired). They want everyone to know they have money and are constantly finding ways to tell you how much they have or are worth. They have made the money the hard way and are used to being brutal and getting whatever they want. Their behaviour is usually rather impolite and they tend to treat everyone around them as though they are somewhat lesser beings for not being so well off. This group expects, but doesn’t find, perfection.

These travellers will do a small amount of research before arrival, mostly checking out the hotel online and anything previous travellers may have written on sites like TripAdvisor. They rarely do any research around the country itself or the culture. Travel companies these days are very careful not to show a hotel’s star rating in the brochure. This is because there is no international standard for these ratings. However, hotels are proud when they are awarded 3, 4, 5 or even 6 stars (6 is possible in Egypt) and display this prominently on their web pages. Thus these travellers will immediately start to compare the hotel with hotels of the same star rating that they have experienced in the “First World” (OK, I made that up but, if we have a “Third World” stands to reason that somewhere there has to be a “First” and a “Second World”, or so my sense of logic tells me). Naturally they don’t compare. These travellers will then make a point of bringing every ‘discrepancy’ in perceived standards to the rep’s attention and actually expect the rep to be able to change everything for them.

This group may or may not book excursions. They do have the money to spend but haven’t got where they are now by parting with it too willing so selling to them is not easy. However, if they do book then you can certainly expect more complaints because nothing will ever quite match up to their expectations of perfection. We have to remember here, also, that each person has a different idea of what is perfect so where this group finds imperfection others find interest, enjoyment and local colour.

You will certainly know these guests have been and you may well be happy to see them leave.

Then there are the First Time Travellers. There are not many of these coming to Egypt. This group needs a lot of help but is usually very courteous and make you feel like you really want to take care of them. They are typically in their 30s and have never before left the UK. They have done some research but it didn’t make too much sense to them because they never travelled before. They have saved hard to come and are probably visiting in the low season when it’s cheapest. They will usually be on a budget but will have come prepared to spend some money on excursions. As a rep you tend to see these guests quite a lot during their stay. They have hundreds of questions for you from how to behave, what to wear where, how to get to places and even who to speak to in the hotel if they need certain things. They tend to be very accepting that things are very different to ‘home’ and sometimes don’t complain even when they should. These guests can be hard work because you have to ‘hold their hands’ a lot of the time but they also tend to be very nice people. You feel you want them to have the best time ever and you are often sad when they leave. They will usually remember you as part of their first experience abroad and will certainly thank you as they go.

A group of travellers that is fortunately a very small group is one I call “the miseries”. This group is made up of people who seem to like to have a really bad time. They pay a lot of money for a holiday and all they do is moan about everything the whole time they are away. Sometimes it’s hard to understand why they come away at all if everything is so bad. You will get many complaints from this group. Most of the complaints will either be not justified or about things that you cannot change so you will give them even more to moan about when you can’t do anything for them. But that is what they like anyway so perhaps you’re doing them a favour by giving them an extra reason to be miserable.

Another small group to whom you won’t be able to sell anything normally is the ‘quick tripper’. This group is usually financially well off and has money to spare which they don’t mind spending. If they want something that is ‘extra’ at the hotel they will have it and won’t complain when they have to pay at the end of the stay. If you engage them in conversation you will find they usually head for an extended break to exotic climes at least once a year but because the weather in the UK has been so bad they have just come for a quick ‘sun break’ to ‘recharge the batteries’. You usually see these people during the winter in the low season. Low season breaks in Hurghada are so cheap that they don’t even make a dent in these people’s pockets. They do not usually buy excursions but simply want to sit by the pool and soak up the sun. I have known people in this group who, after they arrived, never left the hotel until it was time to go back to the airport. The hotel, on the other hand, loves these guests because they do spend a lot of money on extras and a la carte meals which is all extra income.

Also unlikely to buy anything is the Specialist Activity Traveller. This guest has come for a week or fortnight indulging a favourite pastime. It is usually a sporting pastime like diving, windsurfing, kite surfing or many other watersports for which this area is famous. Reps are unlikely to have any problems with these guests and, more commonly, won’t see them at all until they are on the coach going back to the airport. This group have usually pre-booked everything in the UK with their preferred sports centre and have already arranged all their transfers. The focus is the sport and excursions are not even part of the equation. For divers there is the need for something to do on the last day but they usually already have that organised as well.

Last, but not least, we have the cheap Package Holiday Traveller. This is the ‘bread and butter’ of the travel companies like the one I worked for and a huge target audience for excursion sales. Depending on family (i.e. school attendance) and financial circumstances they come at any time of the year and have selected this holiday because it appears to give them the most for their money. This is the largest group and, like all large groups, there are good and bad. Some will have done research, others not. Most will have travelled before but the majority only around Europe. Many will be focussing on what they get for their money – especially the “all inclusive” benefits.

So much for the groups. That leads into the sort of complaints that arise. Of course, there are different complaints all the time. As I’ve said before, some complaints are justified and you really want to help. Other complaints, though, are either not justified or they stem from something the guest has done or not done or, perhaps, from a lack of knowledge of how things are in the destination country. I don’t want this to become a FAQ spot for complaints. However, there are a few that were so common I think are worth mentioning.

The first complaints here are all about food. The food in Egypt is very different to European food. There are dishes that even in a cosmopolitan country like the UK we don’t tend to find easily (if at all). Egypt is also a land of meat-eaters. There are plenty of dishes without meat but they don’t consider this too important. They tend to be without meat because the meat is too expensive and not because they don’t eat meat. They have hardly heard of vegetarianism in most of Egypt (Cairo is an exception) and as for veganism you might as well forget it. Some hotels do have a vegetarian corner but making them understand this means NO MEAT AT ALL is hard work and you often find that the green beans have very small pieces of meat mixed in with them even when they are intended to be served as a vegetable. The hotels offering the all inclusive package realise this and try to cook to European tastes. They tend to end up with what I call “international non-food”. Meals are open buffets with lots of choice but…..

There’s not enough choice/nothing to eat – these guests need to get real. There are usually pasta, rice, potatoes, at least 2 other vegetables, 2 or 3 meat dishes, 1 poultry, 1 fish, live cooking station, bar-b-q station, salad cart plus deserts and breads etc. What they mean is that it’s not what they eat at home so they won’t eat it here. It also means they can’t find burger and chips in the hotel.

There’s nothing for vegetarians or vegans – see above. However, most hotels are becoming more aware of these requirements and are quite happy to cook something specially for these guests at no extra charge if asked.

The restaurant times are not convenient – well really, how long do you need a restaurant to be open? In most hotels the restaurant is open for 3 hours for breakfast (some open 2 hours earlier for the ‘early light breakfast’), 2 or 3 hours for lunch and 3 hours for dinner. If those times don’t suit there are various snack outlets open for most of the rest of the time. In short, there is always something to eat somewhere between 7am and 10pm or even longer in some hotels. Do you really need to eat outside these times?

There’s no fresh fruit – this really depends if you know what you’re looking at. I was actually rude to one guest who made this complaint to me, possibly because I was becoming bored with hearing it. On the evening in question the guest complained there had been no fresh fruit available at dinner. I had just eaten my own dinner in this hotel and had eaten fresh fruit instead of desert so I know it was there. When I pointed this out to the guest he insisted there was no fruit. I then proceeded to name the fruits. I think there were guava, fresh dates, cape gooseberries, Sharon fruit and something else. I seem to remember thinking it had been a good selection. However, the guest replied by informing me that this was not what he meant. He meant there had been no fresh fruit that he recognised and he had expected that if the hotel knew the majority of its guests would be English they should serve fruit that English people would recognise. My reply was to let him know that he was able to purchase all the fruits on offer on the buffet back at home from his local supermarket – that I knew for a fact they were available at Tesco, Asda, Waitrose, Sainsbury’s and Safeway at least, if not more!!

We never get pork or more frequently there is no bacon at breakfast – these people need to do some research before they leave home. They need to know they are visiting a Muslim country and, if they don’t already know why that’s important before they leave, they should find out. I really got tired of having to explain that in Islam pork is forbidden. Some thought that although it’s forbidden for them to eat they should still prepare it for others and it could feel like batting my head against a brick wall explaining that it was also forbidden to touch the meat of the swine or even to keep pigs.

The water is out of date – of course everyone is advised to only drink bottled water and this is included in the all inclusive package in unlimited amounts. Also, coming from Europe everyone is obsessed with dates on products and aware they shouldn’t use things past the ‘use by’ date. So they receive the bottle of water and check the date. Thing is, though, it’s a bit different here. The date on the bottle is the production date and then in small print about as far away from the date itself as it’s possible to get there is a statement that the water should be used within 12 months of the production date. Most guests were happy once they were shown this and read it for themselves.

I’ve been really ill, it’s the food – yes, it probably is but not in the way they mean. They want you to believe that the food is infected and made them ill so what they had was food poisoning. In truth the food has made them ill because they have grossly overeaten on the all inclusive buffet. If you think what people normally have at home it’s usually a light breakfast, if anything at all, a light lunch and a main meal in the evening. Plus most people do not drink alcohol at every meal or every evening. Now put these people in a hotel with unlimited alcohol and food and watch. See the size of the breakfast, the lunch and the dinner they eat every day. Watch them at the bar, not only in the evening but throughout the day, and just see how much alcohol they consume. I don’t have any problem with this but they must realise when they change their lifestyle so much the short-term effect is bound to be an attack of the runs!! So, yes it is the food but there’s nothing wrong with how it’s handled or cooked and you DO NOT have food poisoning. Just don’t eat so much.

I didn’t get all my meals – this is because in most hotels the all inclusive starts at 2pm on the first day and ends at 12noon on the last day. Effectively, depending on flight times, people may have to buy their own lunch on the first day or their own dinner on the last day. They complain that this means they have not actually received a fully all inclusive holiday as advertised. I would refer them to the brochure. The small, yes, I agree, extremely small, print in the back does warn about the start and finish times of the all inclusive leaving you to work out for yourself that you may need to buy a meal.

There were, of course, complaints that did not revolve around the food. Again, it is a long list but here are a couple of the most common…..

The rooms is too small, we fall over the bed as we go in – this was a common complaint from groups who had booked 3 in a room (was a complaint in Greece as well). The rooms tend to be OK for two people but cramped with a 3rd. Also, the 3rd bed is often a camp bed and this is another cause of complaint. Much as I always had every sympathy with these guests and often questioned the practice of allowing 3 to a room in some hotels where we knew the rooms to be very small, there was little I could do. At best I could refer guests to the somewhat microscopic print in the back of the brochure which pointed out that where there were 3 to a room the 3rd bed may be a camp bed and rooms may feel cramped.

There is too much aircraft noise – yes, in some hotels there was. However, again I would refer to the brochure. The brochure clearly stated that the hotel was only a 15 minute transfer from the airport and, admittedly put a positive spin on this. However, logic says that it’s impossible to be that close to the airport and not have some disturbance in the form of airport noise. Just think of the people who live near Gatwick or Heathrow and have this disturbance when they are up to half an hour away. It is true that in the winter the planes are told to come in very low and 1 guest did say he felt he could shake hands with the pilot as he flew overhead.

There’s too much noise from the Mosque – again, not much I could do. Guests who had done their research were not surprised and the call to prayers 5 times a day quickly fades into background noise anyway.

I can’t spend my money - yes, a BIG problem for one guest. His bank at home had accurately advised him that the best way to bring his money to Egypt was in cash. It’s true. Using a credit card involves all sorts of commission and other charges back in the UK. If you change your cash into Egyptian money in the UK you get a much worse rate of exchange than you do if you change it here. So “bring cash” is very good advice. Sadly, this man lived in Aberdeen and the bank gave him all local notes. They were nice and new and had “Bank of Scotland” on them. He wasn’t to know these notes are NOT ACCEPTED here but perhaps his bank should have known better. This guest had actually emptied his account to bring enough cash because he was intending to go on just about every excursion available. In his case this really did ruin his holiday but nothing I could do for him.

And last but not least the thorny question of lost luggage. Have you ever heard the complaint, “my luggage hasn’t arrived”? This happened almost every week for some poor guest. We did, of course, try to get the luggage out here as soon as possible. Guests normally arrived on Friday. If they were lucky we could actually get the luggage here the following Wednesday so, on a 1-week holiday, they could enjoy their luggage for a whole day before repacking for the return journey. The worst of this was that it was guests who had actually paid us for an extra service that lost their luggage. They had all taken advantage of, and paid for, the “day before check in” so were effectively paying us to lose their bags!!

And, on that note I think I will have to leave it. I hope you enjoy these anecdotes.

1 comment:

  1. cruising the nile and visiting the pharonic places is very interesting but not all what you can do in egypt still much more