Cruising the Nile

Egypt, the cradle of civilization, is growing into quite the cruising destination.

Cruising in a desert country? Indeed—thanks to the increased popularity of river cruising, tourists can now take a jaunt up the Nile to see more of Egypt than ever before.

river tosca nile cruise

The River Tosca, set to debut in 2009, was built for cruising the Nile

River cruising has steadily gained its own foothold in the vacation market, partly due to the growing popularity in ocean cruising, partly because many seasoned cruisers are always on the lookout for new and exciting ways to travel. River cruising is most associated with the vast system of waterways in Europe, from the Rhine to the Danube and all the way to the Seine. Fact is, the only true similarity river cruises and ocean cruises share is the water underneath the hulls—and even that is different.

“A river cruise runs through a country, instead of to it,” says Patrick Clark, managing director of Avalon Waterways, which offers two Egyptian itineraries of 10 and 12 days aboard the 124-passenger Royal Lotus. Nowhere is this more apparent than in Egypt, where riverboats navigate the Nile River, the banks of which are populated with many of Egypt’s greatest cultural and historical sites. Ancient attractions folded into an exotic itinerary are one of the main reasons why Egyptian river cruises are gaining a new following.

royal lotus cruise ship

The sun deck on the Royal Lotus offers an amazing view

Rising Tide
“There has been big demand for Egypt,” says Guy Young, president of Uniworld River Cruises, which, like Avalon, currently offers two 13- and 14-day itineraries in Egypt. Tourism figures in Egypt grew by 20 percent in 2007, with roughly 10 million tourist arrivals, according to the United Nations World Tourism Organization. “Our bookings in 2008 have doubled,” Young adds.

That astounding 100 percent growth rate has spurred Uniworld to further invest in its Egypt river cruise product. In April 2009, Uniworld will launch the River Tosca, a 42-suite riverboat purposed for Egypt (the boat itself was built higher than usual riverboats, as it doesn’t need to navigate bridges). Staterooms will be 300 square feet, and two Presidential Suites will measure more than 650 square feet. The ship was developed by designers from Red Carnation Hotels, a sister company of Uniworld. Bookings will go on sale at the end of the month. “We are making a big investment in Egypt,” Young says.

Suppliers aren’t the only ones witnessing a growth in demand, though river cruising in Egypt still doesn’t enjoy the volume of Europe. “It’s not as strong as Europe,” says Mike Davies, the president of Anderson, SC-based He sees it as a destination for seasoned cruisers. “Once they do Europe, they move on to Egypt.”

This seems to be true. “Our guests to Egypt are almost invariably seasoned, adventurous travelers,” says Michelle Lavrado, regional product operations manager for Egypt at Tauck World Discovery. “Egypt is not normally a first or early destination in a person’s traveling history. Typically, someone will have traveled domestically and also seen some of the major cities in Europe before turning their attention to more exotic destinations like Egypt.”

More Than Just the Sphinx
Egypt is about as mystical and exotic as it gets. Obviously, most Westerners are aware of the pyramids and Great Sphinx of Giza; however, the country has many more places of interest. Among them is the Valley of the Kings, a remote valley containing subterranean burial chambers and tombs; Karnak Temple, considered Egypt’s most important temple; and the Botanical Gardens. Of course, Egypt’s bustling capital of Cairo is a must-visit, as are the cities of Luxor and Aswan.

oberoi philae cruise ship

A balcony on the Oberoi Philae

Luckily, these cities are invariably part of an Egypt river cruise package. For example, the Oberoi Zahra operates an eight-day itinerary from Aswan to Luxor. Oberoi also operates another riverboat, the Oberoi Philae, which operates between Luxor and Aswan on four- and six-night cruises.

An Egypt river cruise is different from river cruises in Europe in that it is built around a pre- and post-stay. Consider a 12-day itinerary: Only three or four days of the trip are spent cruising the Nile. Conversely, an entire European river cruise can be done on the boat.

“I would characterize our itineraries as 11- and 14-day trips that each incorporate a three-night Nile River cruise,” says Tauck’s Lavrado. “The cruise is a very important component of the trip, but it’s not necessarily the dominant aspect of the trip. That’s one of the big differences between the Nile cruises and the European river cruises. Many European river cruises have an included city stay with guided sightseeing at either the beginning or the end of the itinerary, but in Europe the river cruise accounts for most of the itinerary and it’s the central focus.

“With our Egyptian programs, there is more of a balance between the various components,” she continues. “It’s telling that we offer our guests a cruise-only option on our European river cruises; for Egypt, we don’t offer that.”

“It’s the best of both worlds,” says Avalon’s Clark, referring to taking in both the land and water experience.

Barbara Painter, an agent with Comfort Tours & Travel in Kansas City, MO, has done her own Egyptian river cruise and is a big proponent of the trip. “Most do a three-night cruise, then seven nights on land,” she says.

Overcoming Fears
So while Egypt still lags behind Europe as a river cruise destination, it is certainly growing. However, the question of global security could plague Egypt as a tourist destination. “No question, [Egypt is] growing in popularity,” says Avalon’s Clark, adding that his river cruise line has seen a 44 percent growth in its Egypt river cruise business over last year. “It fluctuates based on stability, and Americans can be concerned; increasingly, they are overcoming those concerns.”

“Conflict might scare some off,” says Comfort Tours’ Painter. “Once the Middle East is more settled, travel will become better.” Interestingly, Painter says that Egypt attracts a lot of European travelers, more than Americans. “They’re not as frightened to travel in that region,” she says.