Inspired by a British reality show depicting the transformation of rotund, multiple chinned women into svelte and dynamic go-getters within a mere six weeks, I dug deep into my pockets and headed for the Grand Hyatt Health Club.
Getting to the hotel was no mean feat. It seems all the world and its wife are beating down its doors as evidenced by traffic jams, made longer by security checks. In the cool of the lobby at last I thought I’d died and gone to.Dubai or Jeddah.
The scent of expensive French perfumes blended with oud, with which Gulf Arabs perfume their clothes, pervaded the air. Perfectly made-up abaya-clad bejeweled beauties wafted past; their glittering high-heeled sandals peeking out from the hem of their diamante-lined attire.
Youths sporting designer T-shirts and shades strolled around arm-in arm. The Galleria shopping complex resembled a miniature clone of Dubai’s City Centre with prices to match. I stopped for a cappuccino in Pasqua costing far more and half the size than those served in their Mohandiseen branch.
The elevator was packed with long-lashed ladies; their faces obscured by burkas. And here and there was the odd South-East Asian maid tightly clutching a precious toddler’s hand or looking distinctly uncomfortable amid the ostentatiously wealthy milieu.
It’s official. Arabs from Saudi Arabia and the GCC countries have discovered Egypt and how!
According to Fareed Al Deaji, the executive manager of Al-Balagha for Travel and Tourism, Egypt is a prime holiday destination for Saudis with this year already showing a 20 per cent increase on 2006.
An article in the Saudi English-language daily the Arab News confirms this trend. “Considering the current situation in Lebanon and Syria, coupled with the high costs of hotel and other expenses in the United Arab Emirates and Jordan, Egypt has emerged as a primary choice in the region .
But it isn’t the pyramids or the Cairo museum which attract our friends in the Gulf to put Cairo on their vacation itinerary. Taxi-driver Tarik Hassan says their days are spent shopping in City Stars or the Four Season’s First Mall, while families with children enjoy the thrills of Dreamland.
Evenings are often spent taking in a show on a Nile dinner boat until 2 or 3am. Some of the seedier nightclubs also benefit from the patronage of bachelors eager to let down their hair.
I asked one of Hassan’s passengers, why he chose Egypt over, say Europe or the US. “I left home only to come home again, he said. “I feel relaxed in Egypt but when I’m in Europe I’m a stranger.
It’s not good news for all the hotels though, probably because visitors from Saudi and the Gulf tend to be clannish. Haakon Larsen, the Nile Hilton’s Director of Operations, conformed that while tourism to Egypt is growing and occupancy rates are up overall, his hotel hasn’t received as many guests from the Gulf as last year.
Tarik Hassan is convinced there are many more in town than last year but most are with their families and often prefer to rent an apartment rather than staying in a hotel. At the moment, he says, there is a serious scarcity of rental apartments in preferred areas.
A representative of one of the better-known limousine companies wasn’t exactly upbeat either. He says business isn’t as good as anticipated because many Gulf visitors either hire a car for the duration of their stay or arrive with their own four-wheeled-drive.
The government remains optimistic. Chairman of the Egyptian Tourism Authority Amr el-Ezabi recently told a press conference that as many as 665 new hotels are in the pipeline to host 16 million visitors annually by 2014 – almost double the 2004 numbers.
Cairo has certainly come a long way since my brief visit in 1998 when the hotel I stayed in resembled an abandoned Hollywood lot. Some so-called experts like to partner the city’s tourism boom with the misfortunes of Lebanon or the visa/travel hassles endured by travelers to Europe and the US nowadays. But those explanations are far too simplistic.
The fact is Cairo as a popular tourist destination has improved by leaps and bounds over the past decade. Ten years ago, finding a decent cup of cappuccino let alone a flavored latte outside a five-star hotel was as unlikely as coming across a palm tree in Alaska. Today, visitors and residents are spoilt for choice thanks to the mushrooming of Italian-style coffee shops and well-known international chains.
It’s a similar story with restaurants. I recently hosted a friend from Florida who was amazed at the variety of cuisines and the quality of the food. I was similarly amazed at her reaction to Carrefour in the City Centre.
“Wow! We have nothing like this where I live, she said. “I can’t wait get home and tell everyone who warned me that Cairo had nothing to offer except camels how wrong they were .
Cairenes are fond of complaining about their city in the way the British never cease complaining about the weather. It may be polluted and grubby in parts. It may be overcrowded and jammed with traffic. It may not be blessed with snow-capped mountains like Beirut. It may not be as green as Kuala Lumpur.
But as the millions of visitors who flock here each year would attest there’s nowhere on earth quite like it. It’s a city with soul and an open heart for all and it’s that which calls to tourists from the Gulf and around the world.
The stock market is on a high, the currency has strengthened, the property market is flourishing, tourism is booming foreign investment is up and UAE companies such as Emaar, Etisalat and Al-Futtaim are eager for a piece of the pie.
My only hope is that some of the benefice eventually trickles down to the people who need it most as the government predicts it will.