In Cairo, after Ramadan prayers comes night-time entertainment
CAIRO - Egyptian tour operators prepared special programmes for Ramadan, the Muslim fasting month that turns Egypt into a magnet for visitors from Arab countries.
Ramadan begins this year as the Egyptian tourism sector shows signs of strength amid a more stable political and security situation.
“Arab tourists prefer to come here, especially at this time of the year, because Ramadan in Egypt is always different,” said Ali Ghonem, a member of the board of the Egyptian Tourism Federation, a guild of local travel companies.
“In a way, Egypt is benefiting from the tense relations between some Arab countries and Turkey, which used to attract hundreds of thousands of visitors from the Arab Gulf.”
With Turkey perceived as less safe after Ankara’s hostile measures against many Arab countries, Egypt has become more appealing as a destination.
Egypt has a special allure during Ramadan. It is home to some of the oldest mosques and Ramadan in Egypt is about prayer but it also offers nightly entertainment and culinary delights.
Egyptians prepare for the Muslim fasting month weeks ahead. People stock up on food, traders display dozens of types of dried nuts and fruits, turning stands outside their shops into a feast for the eye. In poor and middle-class districts, children decorate the streets with vivid paper ornaments that include light bulbs and traditional Ramadan lanterns.
Soon after Muslims break their daily fast, many adults head to mosques, especially the large ones, for prayer.
Nightlife starts after the evening prayer. The centuries-old district near Cairo’s downtown known as “Fatimid Cairo” is at the centre of nightlife during Ramadan but dozens of other places vie for attention with special programmes.
In Fatimid Cairo, which includes Khan el-Khalili bazaar and al-Azhar mosque, a millennium-old Islamic house of prayer that has been overseeing the country’s Muslim faith since its construction, nightlife is rich, beautiful and memorable.
The district boasts many cafes but most visitors prefer Fishawi, a 200-year-old cafe that gained fame as a meeting place for Egypt’s cultural, political and artistic celebrities. Apart from the Egyptian water pipe, the cafe offers traditional hot drinks. It is in the heart of Hussein Square where faith juxtaposes with the cheerful spirit of the month.
Khan el-Khalili is crowded with souvenirs shops and stalls selling Egyptian perfumes, herbs and clothes, all precious gifts visitors can take back to their countries.
A visit to Fatimid Cairo feels like a journey in time; everything in the district demonstrating loyalty to its original builders. The homes, the alleyways and the economic activities of the district are the same as they were centuries ago.
Outside the old city, Cairo’s five-star hotels and entertainment centres offer a different, but similarly enjoyable experience during Ramadan. Most hotels have programmes that include delicious iftars, singing, occasional dancing shows and suhur, the meal before the day’s fasting starts at dawn.
Apart from its history, culture, cuisine and spirituality, Egypt has an edge in terms of prices. With the Egyptian pound’s low exchange rate — $1 is equivalent to 17 pounds — Egypt has become a cheaper and more affordable destination for average budgets.
Ghonem said bookings have poured in from Arab countries, especially Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates.
“Most Arab tourists come from those three countries,” Ghonem said. “Nevertheless, we receive bookings from other Arab states.”
Last year, 3 million Arabs visited Egypt, including more than 900,000 from Saudi Arabia and 160,000 from Kuwait.
The number of Arab visitors made up almost 30% of all the tourists visiting Egypt, the Egyptian Tourism Federation said.
“Arab tourists are very important for the national economy because they spend more than the average visitor and stay longer,” said tourism expert Soha Abdel Wahab. “Those spending Ramadan in Egypt always leave with unforgettable experiences.
“There is a lot to see and enjoy in our country when it comes to a spiritual month like this. Fasting is not easy but Egypt has turned the month of Ramadan into something everybody waits for from year to year.”