Nile cruises sail again, forced to navigate river full of challenges

Following a monthslong hiatus due to the coronavirus pandemic, cruises on the Nile River have resumed, despite some challenges to the tourism sector in Egypt.

al-monitor The Sara cruise ship is moored off the river bank of Egypt's southern city of Luxor, where 45 suspected coronavirus cases were detected and evacuated two days prior, March 9, 2020. Photo by AFP via Getty Images.

Oct 14, 2020

The cruise ship Amwaj (Wave) set sail Oct. 1 from Luxor to Aswan with a group of American, Swiss and British tourists on the very first trip on the Nile River since the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic and the shutdown of the tourism sector. The floating hotel was the first to obtain the required license from the Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities to get back on track, following the announcement that cruises would be allowed to resume work bearing restrictions this month.

“For us, resuming the cruises for tourists has been like giving the kiss of life to a dying person,” Mohamed Rabie, manager of Amwaj, told Al-Monitor. “We are very honored to be the first cruise ship on the Nile to start operating. We do not have many guests on board yet, but for next week the numbers are increasing.” 

Rabie said eight passengers and 35 crew members are on board, while the ship can accommodate 124 passengers and 70 staff.

Amwaj took over from Le Fayan, which departed in mid-March from the lock of Esna, halfway between Luxor and Aswan, in what was the last trip on the Nile before the coronavirus preventive measures took effect. Le Fayan's last trip ushered in the unprecedented shock that the pandemic has had on the tourism industry.

“[Cruise ships are] the first hospitality establishments affected by a pandemic because they are a closed and small area full with guests and employees, which is considered a suitable environment for virus circulation,” Nahla Helmy, an associate professor in the Faculty of Tourism and Hotel Management at Beni Suef University, told Al-Monitor.

At the beginning of March, on another cruise ship a coronavirus cluster was first detected in Egypt, after 12 asymptomatic crew members tested positive, followed by 33 passengers. Until then, only three cases — and just one of them Egyptian — had been announced by the local authorities.

Until the outbreak of the pandemic, Nile cruises were flourishing again after the long stagnation that the sector experienced since 2011, and even though there are no official records of the number of visitors to the country, 130 floating hotels were operating at the beginning of March, Helmy said. 

The increase in the number of cruise ships contributed to the new records registered by Egypt’s tourism industry in 2019, when the country was among the world’s fastest-growing destinations, with 13.6 million tourists and a new high in tourism revenues of over $13 billion

In January 2019, Bloomberg wrote that luxury lines are returning to Egypt, and The Telegraph still considered Feb. 22 of this year that there had never been a better time to explore the Nile.

“Prior to [the pandemic], and throughout its tourism history, cruise ships were one of the premium products of Egypt’s tourism for the foreign market,” Magued Abousedera, undersecretary of state for international tourism at the Egyptian Tourism Authority, told Al-Monitor.

In May, the Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities started handing out hygiene certificates to hotels and other sites that adhered to a set of preventive coronavirus measures. Yet the door for cruises only opened in September. On July 1, Egypt began to also resume international flights as part of its plan to gradually resume tourism in the country.

The Ministry of Tourism announced Oct. 5 that it had granted so far 11 floating hotels in Luxor and Aswan the health certificate required to resume operations, out of the 22 that had applied. Cruise reservations are still low, and those operators that have decided to sail again to promote the sector are expected to incur significant financial losses, sources told Al-Shorouk News.

To help the tourism industry absorb the impact of its collapse, the Egyptian government has offered a support package that includes delays on payment of government dues and services and on debt repayments. Abousedera said that cruise ships have benefited from these measures, too. Due to the persistence of the crisis, the support package was extended Sept. 30.

“Nile cruises are passing through a very critical crisis now,” said Helmy, who recently authored an article on the revitalization of Egyptian Nile cruises that included a questionnaire distributed among 35 managers of sampled floating hotels. “Most of the floating hotels are closed, the majority of their staff is on half-paid vacation and not working, and although the infection rate in Egypt has decreased few floating hotels are operating,” she said. “Moreover, no one knows when this crisis will end,” she added, noting that the managers in the sector “are upset and dissatisfied.”

Abousedera noted that one of the main challenges for the sector in the short term is to find new tourists, given that cultural tourism and cruise ships in Egypt mainly depend on the European market, including countries like Germany, Spain and France, some of which are still severely affected by the spread of the virus that causes COVID-19.

Besides the uncertainty surrounding this crisis, Helmy stated that the main challenges for the sector include the loss of qualified staff since 2011, the limited maintenance and engineering renovation activities for the floating hotels and the weak infrastructure.

Another major challenge looming over Nile cruises is the impact of climate change. A report by the Union for the Mediterranean published in July 2018 pointed out that climate changes and development projects in upstream countries “directly threaten the movement of floating hotels and Nile tourism in different parts of the river, particularly the Luxor-Aswan sector.” The report also pointed out that Nile tourism “suffers from the low water level, the appearance of islands in the river stream and the waterway between Qena, Luxor and Aswan not being cleaned.”

However, Abousedera believes that, in the near future, the low rates of coronavirus infections registered in Egypt makes it an attractive tourist destination, especially with the onset of fall and winter, which coincides with the tourist season in the country.

Helmy said that Nile cruises are also well positioned to flourish again once the coronavirus crisis vanishes, especially because of the numerous world-famous tourist attractions and sightseeing tours offered particularly in Luxor and Aswan.

She added that the sector can benefit from the continuous direct and indirect promotional and marketing activities of Upper Egypt cruises, its long experience, the organization of international events in the region, the stability of its prices and its strong relations with large international and American travel agencies.

“Luxor and Aswan are distinctive tourist destinations and can never be substituted by another place, especially for cultural tourism. Egypt possesses monuments and antiquities rarely found in other places in the world, going back to the Ancient Egyptian civilization,” she concluded.