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Desert Train Hearlds Train Tourism In Egypt

Samir Raafat
Jordan Star March 1998

CAIRO - The other day, 82 foreign journalists were treated to a first in the long history of railway presence in Egypt. For two full days they traveled by special train across 600 kilometers of breathtaking terrain, from the Libyan and White deserts west of the Nile to the earthen ranges and rocky plateaus east of it. At some point the festive train crossed the Nile at Qena, less than a hundred kilometers north of Luxor, where, not so long ago, those same journalists had sent their gruesome reports on the November 17 massacre in which 58 tourists and four Egyptians lost their lives at the hands of terrorists.

As it turned out, organizing the train ride was a logistical feat of its own. This was the first time a passenger train was going to run from the Western Desert Oasis of al-Kharga to the Red Sea Port of Safaga. And these were not ordinary passengers. They were the representatives of the international Fifth Estate. Approvals and special permits had to be obtained from almost every government department.

First, the ministries of tourism, interior and transport had to give their consent. Then it was for the Antiquities Department to be notified since visits to several ancient temples and Roman quarries along the way were on the intenarary.

As official host, the governors of the New Valley, Luxor and the Red Sea were informed of the visit. All three made cameo appearances as the train passed through their respective regions.

And of-course the security apparatus had to be on hand 24 hours. No one was taking any chances.

Lastly, Egypt's flag carrier, Egyptair, came up with the appropriate number of seats on its twice-a-week flight to al-Kharga Oasis. This entailed replacing the scheduled Boeing 727 with a wide bodied Airbus.

Also in on the act was Egypt's burgeoning private sector. Wagons Lits Egypt, a division of the multinational Accor Group of hotels and caterers, provided five finely appointed train wagons including one each for a restaurant and bar. The latter was definitely the train's attention-grabber where "everything must go" free of charge. The Egyptian National Railway (ENR) meanwhile, provided two (of its 20) brand new locomotives recently imported from Germany.

In Luxor, the journalists and their 26 pax security detail were guests at the century old fully refurbished Winter Palace Hotel (a member of the Accor Group). Ditto in the Red Sea. There, the journalists were guests of al-Gouna's promoters, the Sawiris Group. Egypt's industrial-real estate tycoons pulled all the stops, wining and dining the fifth estate in their kaleidoscopic resort's luxury hotels: the Movenpick, the Sonesta and the latest kid on the block the Disney-esque Sheraton Miramar.

News item in al-Ahram regarding the approx one billion pounds Ismailia - Rafah line

To be sure, the trip did not lack perks. If press kits were choc full of souvenirs from Swiss chocolates to ash trays and T-shirts, the entire voyage never once lacked in imported wines, spirits and German Lowenbrau. When it was finally time to hop onto the private flight back to Cairo from al-Gouna's tiny airport, it was nothing short of a miracle the Russian and German press corps could still walk a straight line.

But where did it all start? According to Volkhard Windfuhr, the incumbent chairman of the Cairo Foreign Press Association, the train trip first insinuated itself during a recent interview with President Mubarak. An avid train buff, Der Speigel's Cairo bureau chief popped out the thought on how rail tourism could have a brilliant future in these parts. Train buffs all over Europe and the United States are panting for new routes and destinations. Egypt's abundance of scenic destinations notwithstanding, handled in the right way, this could become a large foreign income generator. And since Egypt was the second country in the world to introduce railways (1858) after the United Kingdom, it is only befitting that train tourism be given due consideration.

The Egyptian president bought it.

The suggestion of train tourism is not new however. During a chance encounter at the Egyptian embassy in Paris, the then-ambassador's outspoken wife, Magda Sidky, asked Egypt's long standing minister of transport as to the whereabouts of King Farouk's private train coaches. "They're mothballed in the train depot at Kobbeh Palace." came the reply. As it turned out, these prize coaches have rarely been used following Nasser's departure. Although Sadat preferred helicopters, his train ride from Alexandria to Cairo with Richard Nixon at his side made prime time television all over the world.

"Well, it's time they came out of their big sleep and started earning their keep!" exclaimed a determined Mrs. Sidky. A great traveler, she had been on Europe's "Train Corail", "Train Bleu", and the "Orient Express". She knew a good thing when she saw one. Why not do the same in Egypt?

Nothing came out of the well-intended proposal. The minister's mind was elsewhere, perhaps in commuter trains and underground metros. Rail travel in Egypt continued as it had for the last 140 years, the only real tourist ride being the regular 14-hour Cairo - Aswan route and since most of it is during the night, not much there in terms of scenic views.

Seven years after the unfruitful embassy encounter, train tourism may still resurface especially now that serious backroom talk has begun regarding the break up of the state's stranglehold over the country's ailing railway system. The timing for such a change couldn't be better as Egypt embarks on ambitious plans to expand existing rail network as far as Rafah (by fast train) on its north eastern border and to the new Toshkie Valley in Egypt's south western desert.

Yes, indeed, the trainspotters are coming!

articles posted on were published in the following books by Samir W Raafat: THE EGYPTIAN BOURSE, Zeitouna, Cairo -- CAIRO THE GLORY YEARS, Harpocrates, Alexandria -- HISTORY & SOCIETY IN A CAIRO SUBURB; MAADI 1904-1962, Palm Press, Cairo -- PRIVILEGED FOR THREE CENTURIES, printed digitally and bound by Elias Printing, Egypt

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