Friday, January 28, 2011

Traveling to Egypt, Elsewhere in Middle East? Great Caution Needed

Who knows how more vociferous these violent street protests in Egypt, Tunisia and elsewhere in the Middle East might become? Given the impetus from social media, the old playbook in travel-danger assessment no longer has validity. And what used to take weeks to develop now takes hours.

Friday is the usual day off in the region, which might partly account for the astonishing volume of street protests today in Egypt. Will they continue at this level? Will they grow? Will more regimes topple? Will you have to watch yourself that you aren't trampled at an airport by fleeing dictators and their entourages with the bags of cash?

One thing for sure: In Cairo, heads are being cracked in the streets. Violence is growing. At least for today, it's bad.

And getting worse. The embattled Egyptian government has turned the army into the streets and put an overnight curfew into effect in Cairo, Alexandria and Suez. The government has also succeeded in largely shutting down Internet and cell-phone service.

By evening in Cairo, the curfew seems not to be working to keep people off the streets. Al Jazeera seemed to be able to move its crews around Cairo more easily than Western broadcast organizations. Here's the Al Jazeera live English feed. Here is their live blog. And here are the Al Jazeera updates on Twitter.

According to an alert on Egypt today by the heads-up global travel intelligence company iJET Intelligent Risk Systems: "Internet, mobile phone SMS text messaging, and Blackberry Messaging service are down across much of Egypt as severe civil unrest continues. Blackberry Internet service is also largely unavailable. Internet service is still available at some hotels that cater to international travelers."

The State Department, which was so quick on the draw last year to issue that way-over-the-top travel alert for all of Europe, is so far mute on the current travel outlook for Egypt, where State Department interests are, shall we say, delicate.

[Update 2 p.m. EST: News accounts in Europe are now saying that the State Department has gotten off the stick and issued a travel alert for Egypt, saying Americans should "defer non-essential travel" there. The State Department is notorious slow in issuing anything to the public, including a passport, so why am I not surprised that while European mainstream news organizations received the travel alert, at this writing the State Department Web site on Egypt, for the American public, has not been updated for nine days?]

[UPDATE: Ah, finally, the new State Department alert is available to the traveling public.

Lots of savvy travelers embark in the winter for places like Cairo because off-season fares are low and the tourist crush is far less than in the summer.

Me, I wouldn't go. Not this week, not next, and maybe not for a long while. In the UK, tour operators are reassessing their advice earlier this month to consider Egypt as an alternative to Tunisia.

The trouble continues in Tunisia, of course, and Yemen, is, as usual, a place to be very careful in. But let's also look even at any developing situations in Jordan. And I'd be keeping at least a casual eye on Morocco, though so far there have been no similar problems.

Saudi Arabia? Hardly a tourist mecca if you're not bound for Mecca, where most of us are not allowed to visit anyway. Trouble there with the regime? Not a sign of it so far -- not that there haven't been warnings from analysts. But don't even think about what that would do to the AAA's usual summer-travel gasoline price forecasts.

Meanwhile, the Web site of the Egyptian airline EgyptAir (which has 180 departures daily from Cairo) is off-line, as is that of Cairo International Airport. EgyptAir is one of the 27 member airlines of Star Alliance.

In the U.S., Delta Air Lines, which became in 2008 the only U.S. carrier to offer direct daily flights between Kennedy airport and Cairo, is still blissfully selling tickets to Cairo on its Web site, where the service is called "A trip fit for a king ... or a Pharaoh."

Delta provides no current travel-advisory information for non-pharaohs who might be rethinking that Cairo trip, or more to the point, desperately trying to get out of Cairo.

Helloooo, Delta: Can you spell social-networking as well as you can spell pharaoh?



Anonymous said...

Here's a link to al Jazeera's live video feed. Unfortunately, challenged U.S. media conglomerates have probably been asked not to emphasize their coverage.

ChefNick said...

It's actually quite hilarious how dunder-headed some organizations can be. While I was flicking around the TV today, checking every so often on Canadian Al Jazeera, I come across one of those mellifluous "exotic flute"-themed commercials for travel to, umm, . . . er, Egypt. Complete with the "Ankh" symbol standing in for the "T" of Egypt.

I wonder how many advertising/TV employees are as we speak being lined up against a a wall and shot.

My father "ran" Air Zaire in the days of Mobutu (now Dem. Rep. Congo -- a misnomer if I ever saw one--) and one of the reasons he'd come home some nights and down a couple too many stiff ones was because Mobutu and his entourage would suddenly hijack the one daily to Brussels and my dad would have to figure out what to do with 238 enraged passengers.

So you're not far off the mark, there, Joe, except I'd expect Mubarak to be wearing a full-length burqa in this case.