By Tamim Elyan
Special to Daily News Egypt
CAIRO: Claudia Ehlers has always dreamed of seeing the pyramids – a dream dismissed by almost everyone she told given the challenges she would face as a physically challenged tourist.
“But I followed my dream in defiance of all difficulties,” Ehlers said.
The German tourist stayed in Egypt for eight days and went on a safari trip on Al-Ryan Lake in her wheelchair. She says her trip exceeded all expectations.
“Everything was so unbelievable, so experience-rich, so fantastic and most importantly so problem-free,” she said, describing her trip.
Ehlers’ adventure started at Cairo Airport where she was carried off the plane by two men. “I was carried out of the airplane in a manner I never experienced before, namely without any utilities; normally the transport in and out of the plane is done with a very small chair, but here it seemed that they didn’t have anything like that. I worried about the two men who carried me because I’m not very light weighted but then I saw a wheelchair in front of the plane.”
Ehlers visited the Cairo Tower where she was helped by her tour guide up the tower to enjoy the view from the top. The next day she paid the pyramids a visit.
The highlight of her trip was when Ehlers gave up her wheelchair and took a ride on a camel with the help of her guide.
Ehlers’ seamless trip was made possible by Egypt for All, the only Egyptian travel agency dedicated to physically challenged tourists, designing programs specifically to cater to their needs.
Established by Sherif El-Hendi and Martin Gaballah in 1999 as an associate of Grabo-tours in Germany, Egypt for All comprises a professional staff devoted to the services of the physically challenged tourist.
El-Hendi received his first delegation in 1999 formed of six tourists on wheelchairs and his client list has been only growing ever since.
“We have been gaining experience and we now have our own equipment and specially equipped cars with ramps and toilets,” he boasted.
Vehicles are modified in a workshop by removing seats, attaching clamps for securing wheelchairs, and adding portable ramps for getting on and off the vehicle.
Nashwa El-Sherif, professor at the faculty of tourism, Helwan University, says that the lack of interest in accessible tourism can be referred to the culture, lack of adequate infrastructure and absent marketing.
“We are missing a huge potential market if we continue to ignore physically challenged tourists,” El-Sherif said.
According to Ahmed Al-Khadem, former chairman of the Egyptian Tourist Authority, the traffic of physically challenged tourists reached 180 million tourists around the world in 2007 and we shouldn’t miss out on that market.
“We need a proper study that evaluates the economic worth of this type of tourism and how we can establish good infrastructure to enable us to compete in it,” he said.
Programs for physically challenged tourists are designed to allow the tourist more time for visits than other tourists; it also has more breaks in between visits. However, it includes almost all the activities other tourists would be interested in, such as scuba diving.
Mick Riley, an English physically challenged tourist made a two-week trip to Luxor visiting the temples of Karnak, Luxor and Hatshepsut, the Valley of the Kings as well as a ride in a Felucca.
“I was surprised how much of the area I actually got to see,” Riley said.
With a tour guide and someone to push the wheelchair, Riley visited Karnak where he said “the ground is slightly more uneven, the help of someone pushing me came in handy enabling me to videotape the area.”
He recounts his visits to Hatshepsut temple and the Valley of the Kings.
“This is where I thought I would encounter most of my problems, first we went to the Valley of the Kings; three tombs were accessible with help from the guys [from the travel agency], after a short drive we arrived at Hatshepsut temple towering into the mountains behind, two huge ramps and stairways were easily climbed with the help of the two men, one person would have serious difficulty getting you up here alone,” he recalled.
Claus Sans from Germany went a step further; he took a flight in a two seated air glider in Gouna, Hurghada.
“Our flying objects were kind of a small engine delta flyers in which two seats were positioned behind each other, with the back seat set a little higher than the front seat. The pilot was in the front seat steering the flyer, and I was sitting in the back seat. It was like a dream to me, and I never felt myself that free before,” he said.
“The deed made me totally forget about my disability and my wheelchair; I even felt as if I never needed one and wished those 20 minutes – the flight duration – never came to an end,” Sans said, “But our pilot finally went down, and landed me again on the ground of hard reality.”
Mohamed Abdel Lateef, a tour guide from Luxor says he has dealt with a lot of physically challenged tourists sometimes coming in groups.
“Of course they know that it is more exhausting than usual but they always find help whether getting on and off vehicles or inside the sites; the most important thing is not to give them the impression that they are receiving special care, they don’t want to be reminded of their disability,” Abdel Lateef said.
According to El-Hendi, major challenges that accessible tourism faces in Egypt are the shortage of especially handicapped-accessible hotel rooms, mainly exclusive to 5-stars hotels which raises the expenses of the trip.
Out of 350 Nile cruise ships between Luxor and Aswan, only one, Amarco I, has handicap accessible cabins.
Egyptian law stipulates that 5 percent of the rooms in all hotels should be handicapped-accessible.
Another problem is when the tourist wants to go on a free tour in the streets of the city which are not accessible at all; El-Hendi says he must appoint an assistant to help him or her navigate their route.
Al-Khadem says the problem is that physically challenged tourists are only attracted to cultural tourism not to adventure tourism like scuba diving and safari.
“Most sites in Egypt are closed ones that require effort from the tourist to move and making it accessible is very difficult; however, the Supreme Council of Antiquities is already working on this,” Al-Khadem said.
El-Hendi resounded this claim as he noted an improvement both in historical sites and airports during the past 10 years regarding accessibility.
“What we need is to increase the number of accessible hotel rooms in different categories, reduce the time needed to finish paperwork at the airport and tickets’ queues; especially, at the valley of kings where disabled tourists can’t take the mini-train and we have to negotiate with officers to use our cars,” he said.
He also called for encouraging new agencies dedicated to physically challenged tourists to see the light in order to serve this growing market.
“Travel agencies should start making programs for physically challenged tourists and proper infrastructure should be made available which will result in huge revenues for all sides,” El-Sherif said.
“They are working within their capabilities; there must be a media awareness campaign, intensive marketing campaigns and related activities such as equipments exhibitions and conferences,” she added.
According to experts in the field, Egypt is moving on the right track but until it reaches the level when it is 100 percent accessible, Egyptians’ sense of hospitality will always give the physically challenged tourist the warm welcome.
Experts encourage new travel agencies to dedicate their services to physically challenged tourists.