Egypt's walking tours and hidden gems: these are the people trying to shake up the country's tourism industry

We meet the masterminds behind Walk Like an Egyptian and Around Egypt in 60 Days

The typical tourist visiting Egypt will usually see the bucket-list sites: the Pyramids of Giza, the Egyptian Museum, the Citadel and Khan El Khalili bazaar in Cairo, followed by a Luxor and Aswan Nile cruise.

“In the last 100 years, tourism in Egypt hasn’t changed, which is shocking,” says Egyptian Asmaa Khattab. “The programmes are the same and people have just been doing copy-paste.”

But a young generation of Egyptians in the tourism industry is trying to change all that, by highlighting the country’s hidden gems for locals and foreign tourists alike.

“I felt like I wanted people to see the real Egypt,” says Khattab, 35, who founded the walking tours group Walk Like An Egyptian in 2015.

Sultan Barkouk complex. Walk Like An Egyptian offers cultural tourism walking tours of Egypt's hidden gems. All photos taken by Nada El Sawy / The National
Sultan Barkouk complex. Walk Like An Egyptian offers cultural tourism walking tours of Egypt's hidden gems. All photos taken by Nada El Sawy / The National

Omar Attia had a similar goal in mind when he started the Instagram page Around Egypt in 60 Days in 2017, documenting his travels with his wife Dalia Debaiky in 27 governorates throughout the country.

“We need to be aware of all the touristic and historical attractions that this country embraces, because we as locals eventually become ambassadors of our own country’s tourism,” says Attia, 33.

What brought me to Egypt is the Pyramids. What keeps bringing me back is the people and there are just so many things to see

Jennifer Bean, tourist

It is a boost that is much needed as the Covid-19 pandemic has dealt a blow to tourism in Egypt, an industry that on average accounts for about 12 per cent of its gross domestic product. The country hosted 3.6 million travellers in 2020, down from 13 million in 2019.

The Pharaohs' Golden Parade in April, which transported 22 mummies to the National Museum of Egyptian Civilisation, signalled to the world that Egypt is open to visitors. Meanwhile, several palaces and museums have recently reopened following renovations, and the Grand Egyptian Museum is scheduled to debut later this year.

“We have so many things and places to see in Egypt. Our history is not only very long – it is reflected in a lot of different ways,” Khattab says.

Walk Like An Egyptian

Walk Like An Egyptian offers cultural tourism tours exploring the City of the Dead, Moez Street and downtown Cairo, as well as longer trips outside the city, including Quseir, Hurghada, Alexandria and Sinai.

Khattab began her career as a tour guide, inspired by her love of history and her outgoing personality. She studied tourism and hotel management at Helwan University, where Khaled El Anany, now the minister of tourism and antiquities, was teaching at the time.

After graduating in 2006, she was happy to work as a tour guide, but was “shocked at the state of tourism in Egypt”. She found companies were mainly focused on mass tourism and were “always thinking of ways to save money, rather than improve quality”.

A lull in tourism following the 2011 revolution that removed then-president Hosni Mubarak from power gave Khattab the chance to reflect. She started a Facebook page in 2012 to share tips and off-the-beaten-track places to see. “I was just sharing my passion about Egypt,” she says.

In 2013, she started doing cycling tours with friends to visit places such as the Ahmed Shawki Museum in Giza and even the pyramids, “but cycling in the Cairo streets is not the most pleasant … and it was a bit of hassle”.

It was not until January 2015, after years of doing her own tours for friends, that Khattab started the first walking tour. Now, Walk Like An Egyptian has earned a TripAdvisor Certificate of Excellence four years in a row since 2017.

What sets her tours apart is Khattab carefully selects the guides to ensure the best quality, and they include places that are inaccessible or unknown to the public. For example, during its tour of City of the Dead – an area that contains both common graves and elaborate mausoleums of historical rulers and elites – “walkis”, as they call them, were able to see the private family grave of Shivakiar Ibrahim, an Egyptian princess who married King Fuad in 1895.

Elsewhere, the downtown Cairo tour features access to the Adly Street Synagogue, which was established in 1899.

Asmaa Khattab founded Walk Like An Egyptian in 2015. Photo: Nada El Sawy / The National
Asmaa Khattab founded Walk Like An Egyptian in 2015. Nada El Sawy / The National

“We always add something authentic to the tour,” says tour guide Nesrine Mahfouz, 53. “We want our walkis to interact with people and see another side of Egypt.”

American Jennifer Bean, 60, was on her fourth trip to Egypt when she booked the City of the Dead tour. Previously, she had been to Cairo, Luxor, Aswan, Fayoum, the Red Sea and the Mediterranean. “This is the next layer,” says Bean, a software developer from North Carolina. “What brought me to Egypt is the Pyramids. What keeps bringing me back is the people and there are just so many things to see.”

In June, tours planned include the National Museum of Egyptian Civilisation, a downtown walking tour and an exclusive visit to Abdeen Palace. Considering Covid-19 regulations, groups are limited to a capacity of 12 guests and face masks are required.

Prices range from 295 to 1,850 Egyptian pounds ($18 to $118), excluding taxes.

More information is at www.facebook.com/Walk.Like.An.Egyptian.Page

Around Egypt in 60 Days

This Instagram account has more than 41,000 followers and features photos of Attia and Debaiky’s travels throughout the country.

They plan to publish a narrative picture book of their adventure later this year, following the opening of the Grand Egyptian Museum.

The couple’s journey began with the start of their relationship, after they got engaged. Not wanting to celebrate in traditional hotel ballrooms, they held their engagement party by the Nile, their Katb Kitab (signing of the Islamic marriage contract) inside the Citadel of Cairo’s Muhammad Ali Mosque and their wedding in Al Manial Palace in 2014.

“Everyone was just stunned and struck by the fact that they were not aware that these historical sites could actually embrace private events,” says Attia.

The couple then spent their honeymoon partially in Aswan and Hurghada, where they explored the Giftun islands, such as Mahmya, with its crystal-clear turquoise waters.

“That’s how we fell in love with our country,” he says. “We thought, why stop here? Why not explore all 27 governorates of Egypt and document them?”

Since May 2017, the couple has done just that, posting pictures of themselves, and later their young daughter, showcasing the country’s beauty, ranging from the Bahariya Oasis in the Western Desert to Marsa Matrouh on the Mediterranean.

They also highlight little-known attractions, such as Hurghada’s Grand Aquarium and the Geological Museum in Maadi, and throw in a bit of adventure, such as zip-lining in Mokattam and paramotoring over the pyramids.

In 2019, Attia established Events Around Egypt, which collaborates with the Ministry of Tourism to manage private weddings and corporate events at historical attractions, such as Al Manial Palace, the Citadel, Manial outdoor gardens and the Manasterly Palace.

“We want to get people intrigued and excited, and say ‘I want to do the same’,” says Attia.

“My motto is: if a lifespan of an average person is around 60 years, what’s 60 days as opposed to 60 years to get to fully roam your own country?”

Updated: June 9, 2021 03:53 PM

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