Responsible tourism on Nile cruises

Every river has its own story to tell, but few are as enthralling as that of the Nile. For thousands of years one of the world’s earliest, wealthiest and most scientifically advanced civilisations created a series of colossal temples and other landmarks along the Nile, that even today continue to reveal new secrets about the culture of Ancient Egypt. Anthony and Cleopatra sailed down it; myth, legend and religion grew around it, trade and agriculture flourished because of it, to create a powerful economy. The Nile doesn’t just flow through Egypt, you could argue that it defines the country – it is its lifeblood.

Thomas Cook might be credited with the invention of mass tourism, but if we want to look at the roots of travel for cultural interest, we need to look a little further back. Well, many centuries back to be honest. Along with the Ancient Greeks, the Romans were some of the first cultural tourists, and one of their favourite destinations was Egypt and the Nile. In fact, some of the graffiti in the tombs of the Valley of the Kings in Luxor has been identified as comments left by Roman travellers dating back some 2,000 years. They might not have had social media but they were still determined to have their say, and let everyone know that ‘Marcellus woz ‘ere’.

Tourism along the Nile has got a lot more sophisticated since the Romans, but in some ways it has stayed just the same. The rural scenes you’ll see on the riverbanks, of fishing communities and farmers tending their fields are probably much the same as the Romans would have witnessed. The key landmarks: the Valley of the Kings, Luxor and Karnak Temples, Kom Ombo – would all have featured on a Roman itinerary. And the best way to visit these sites is, of course, still by cruising along the river, perhaps using the traditional feluccas that would have been the main transportation for the Romans.

Egypt has always been a classic ‘Grand Tour’ destination. But the enduring popularity of its temples, monuments and other landmarks has taken a heavy environmental toll on the river. Combine that with a precarious economy that’s heavily dependent on tourism, and travelling responsibly on the Nile is vital if we want future generations to one day approve of our own jaunts along the river.

River pollution

In the region of 300 cruise ships ply the waters between Luxor and Aswan, and in an industry that is, at best, only lightly policed, they are intensifying the pollution problems that already plague the Nile. Waste water, fuel leakage, solid waste such as plastics, night-time noise and of course the carbon footprint of shipping thousands of people up and down all day are some of the most harmful effects of cruise tourism on the Nile (as they are on any river of course).

Water is scarce in Egypt. Move away from the Nile, and the country is predominantly desert. Egypt’s agricultural industry is almost entirely dependent on the river, but the water itself is so badly polluted that it’s definitely not safe to drink, leaving tourists on Nile cruises dependent on bottled water. And many of those plastic bottles will, sadly, end up in the water. 90% of the plastic pollution in the oceans comes from just 10 rivers, and the Nile is one of them.
What you can do
Undoubtedly the best way to minimise your environmental impact on the Nile is to sail it on a classic felucca cruise. But that option isn’t for everyone of course: your itinerary is at the mercy of the wind and the current, and while it’s the most romantic and authentic way to travel, it’s not always the most comfortable, with basic amenities at best – don’t expect an onboard toilet. The next best thing is to sail with a responsible operator that encourages the use of local cuisine wherever possible (lower food mileage) and will take care to use boats that try to minimise their pollution.

Where the option exists, consider taking the train down from Cairo rather than a domestic flight which km for km is more environmentally damaging than a long haul flight. And, as far as plastic pollution goes, ask your operator whether it is possible to refill water bottles from a larger bottle onboard, and try to ensure you bring as little plastic with you as possible. Reducing the amount of time you spend in the shower each day will also help you cut down your footprint.

Spending local, spending responsibly

The tourism industry is one of the most important sectors of the Egyptian economy, but it is only just starting to rebuild itself after a series of knocks including the Arab Spring revolts, which saw tourism income plunge by 95% in 2011 and the bombing of a passenger plane above the northern Sinai in 2015. The scrabble for income that so many depend on has, unfortunately, led to worsening problems with unscrupulous practices and corner-cutting. Of course that kind of thing happens in all popular tourism destinations, but in parts of Egypt, unfortunately, it can be very difficult to get away from it.

Something else that’s important to bear in mind is that the preservation of ancient monuments such as the Great Pyramids of Giza, Karnak Temple, Kom Ombo and the Colossi of Memnon, is incredibly costly – just in terms of employment, some 40,000 workers are required. Tourism receipts are essential to protecting these fragile but spectacular landmarks.
What you can do
The most significant thing you can do when you’re on holiday is ensure as much of your spending goes into the local economy as possible. That means staying in locally-owned hotels, buying locally-made souvenirs and food, and of course, using local guides. And the best way to ensure that happens? Using a responsible operator. Many Nile cruises, especially by felucca, will offer the option to visit a Nubian village, which can provide a valuable income to these communities as well. And think about travelling off peak too, helping to spread tourism income into months that are not as busy. October / November and April / May are on the shoulder of the peak winter season and the scorching summer.

When it comes to managing the incessant touting, and dodgy tours, joining an organised small group or tailor made trip will help you avoid the worst of it. But if your itinerary specifies two hours in a temple and the guide is trying to get you away earlier, then insist on staying. If you feel you are being led to tourist-trap shops or restaurants where you’ll be paying inflated prices, then complain to the operator. Only by pointing out bad practices will the Egyptian tourism industry be forced to improve.
Written by Rob Perkins
Photo credits: [Page banner: bumihills] [River pollution: Badics] [Spending local, spending responsibly: David Broad]