promised three days of pristine beaches, snorkeling and encounters with the
endangered Dugong (a marine mammal related to manatees). The bus is loud with
chat and laughter. Organizers pass out water, chocolate and blue pins that say,
‘I am an Egyptian Adventurer.”
the students weren’t familiar with Marsa Alam. “I never thought I’d be here,” a
couple of them told me on Day 2 of our itinerary, after we’d toured Qulaan’s
mangroves and lunched on grilled fish.
Egyptians, vacations mean popular destinations at home like Alexandria, or
trendy tourist havens abroad. Foreigners, on the other hand, often see Marsa
Alam as a tiny resort town where life revolves around scuba diving.
three-day trip to Marsa Alam would be an eye-opener. Organized by tour agency
Footloose Egypt, it’s one of many offerings that have put Egypt’s lesser-known
wonders on many bucket lists.
1. Footloose Egypt
Footloose organized its first trip to Marsa Alam, only about 20 people signed
up because nobody knew much about the destination, says Sherif Fawzy,
co-founder and CEO. But word of that trip – and Instagram-worthy beach photos –
spread quickly on social media. The company’s second trip to Marsa Alam (which
I joined in 2016) had a packed bus of 45 people.
Greece, but we’re better,” organizers had enticed on the trip’s Facebook event
page. “Proof? Our Marsa Alam’s shore Hankorab is listed as the 13th most
beautiful shore worldwide.”
has since grown quickly among young people as a reputable and affordable tour
agency perfect for youth, backpackers or solo travelers.
Footloose has taken some 4,500 travellers of 36 nationalities to trips around
Sinai, and offered off-the-beaten-path itineraries like stargazing in Wadi el
Hitan, yoga in Ras Sidr and backpacking in Luxor. They also offer private
tours, and packages for schools and organizations.
major travel agencies are concerned with bringing tourism back to Egypt, and
convincing visitors that it’s safe, smaller agencies like Footloose are
brainstorming new destinations and “trying to combine different cities in a way
that’s never been offered before,” Fawzy says.
three days in Marsa Alam with Footloose, we snorkel, spot the illusive Dugong,
dive and shop at Port Ghalib. The jam-packed itinerary includes a photographer
who chronicles each episode for social media.
home tired yet refreshed. Others were similarly inspired, says organizer
Lavinia Sawires. There were those who’ve conquered their fear of heights, or
those with asthma who’ve climbed mountains.
first started, on the very first trip we went to different hotels and camps,
and we were the only ones there. We were the only ones in Nuweiba, and in Ras
Shitan,” Fawzy says. “On our 10th trip to Wadi Hitan, we had 900 people on
Facebook in four days saying they were interested in going.”
2. Cairo D-Tour
Cairo isn’t on many tourist itineraries. My first visit to Cairo included a few
hours in the famous souq of Khan el Khalili and a visit to the Egyptian Museum.
I only started exploring downtown after I moved to Egypt. And I
didn’t know about Cairo’s rich modern history until I explored
it with a tour guide. There are no plaques on historic buildings, cinemas or squares
to make a self-guided tour easy.
D-Tour is a free guided walk held every Friday morning when the city is quiet.
Lead by tour guide Ahmad Al-Bindari, the tour goes through the city’s famous
squares, like Tahrir, heritage sites and old cinemas that showed the Egyptian
films that became famous in the Arab world.
You’ll see the Egyptian stock exchange on a sidestreet lined
with potted plants, Cafe Riche, where revolutionaries once gathered to plot
against the British occupation, and the Yacoubian Building, the setting for
Alaa Al-Aswany’s infamous novel depicting homosexuality.
But I love how the tour goes beyond the iconic sites to offer
insights into modern Cairo life. There’s a stop at the hip cafe Kafein, bar El
Horryia (my favorite spot for a beer on a hot afternoon), and bookstores,
theaters and art galleries.
In an age
of emboldened racism and stereotypes, it’s crucial to get realistic looks at
people’s real lives, joys and struggles – and to go beyond the typical postcard
3. Walk like an Egyptian
Cairo’s City of the Dead is
a dense Islamic necropolis where people live and work “amongst the dead.”
Founded in 642, it’s the final resting place for generations of rulers, royalty
and conquerors. It’s also home to Egyptians who moved to the capital in the
1960s and couldn’t find affordable housing.
During my first trip to Egypt, our guide said in a hushed voice
that people there live among the tombs. A mysterious, impoverished district
tinged with eeriness and danger.
City of the Dead is also the signature tour of Walk Like an Egyptian, a tour
guide dedicated to uncovering Egypt’s hidden gems.
this tour and found plenty of historic tombs. But I also discovered a bustling
district full of street art and glass blowing workshops full of beautiful vases
I also toured the Mosque of Ibn Tulun with
the group’s founder Asmaa. The itinerary included a stop for an authentic
Egyptian breakfast and a ride in a tuk-tuk. The guides were informative and
spoke insightfully about Egyptian life to give visitors an authentic experience
without the tourist cliches.
4. Mosaic club
Muhammad Zeineddin doesn’t have a marketing department. He markets his
initiative Mosaic Club – which offers city tours, trips and cultural exchanges
– solely on social media.
media has also made researching new destinations much easier, Zeineddin says.
Even the smallest towns have their own Wikipedia pages.
Club offers trips you won’t find elsewhere.
Zeineddin lead a “Banknote Tour” around Cairo that hit an array of mosques
found on Egyptian banknotes. Tours of little-explored museums like the Abdeen
Palace have also proved popular, Zeineddin says.
Club’s cultural exchange events also give Egyptians an opportunity to
experience new cultures. Zeineddin’s posts on volunteer work or scholarships
abroad get thousands of shares and inspire many to travel.
foreigners both love the tours as a safe and hassle-free way to explore lesser
known parts of Egypt.
“Egypt needs to promote itself outside of the desert and camels stereotypes,” Zeineddin says. “Tour agencies need to offer more variety. They need to give people something more interesting – because we have a lot of competition.”