Why long-distance day trips are a bad thing

Recently three people I know visited Cairo. One of them, a Muslim of Somali origin who lives in Canada, spent two weeks there on the way to Dubai and Somalia; the other two, both relatives of mine, went on a day trip from Cyprus, where they had been enjoying a holiday. I have also been to Cairo; I spent two months and a bit there in 1999, learning Arabic (not much in the event). I think day trips to Cairo are a bad idea on many, many levels. Part of this is a bit of old-fashioned moralism mixed with new concerns about the environment; another is that a day trip to Cairo just does not do the place justice.

To be fair, Cyprus to Egypt is not that far - about 250 miles from Larnaca to Cairo (plus the journey from your resort, be it Ayia Napa or Paphos). There are close links between the two countries, and Cyprus is used as the base for printing newspapers which sell in Egypt. However, I have even seen trips of this type advertised which start in London. Yes, London. The guided tours take you to the pyramids, down the Nile for a few miles, to a museum in central Cairo and to a bazaar (Khan al-Khalili) in the old city. I was told that the museum was badly-organised and disappointing. They also told me that they found the place hot and grimy and noisy, and that they didn’t know how I survived living there when I visited. My friend from Canada, who was there for two weeks, also told me of problems with the heat and of only being able to go out in the evenings, when the sun was not at its peak. I must say that when there, I did go out during the day, but I also spent the first couple of days (or most of them) in the flat. I had a long time there to get used to the heat, and I had the advantage of living in the older part of the city, where the streets were narrow and there was a lot of shade.

Cairo is indeed hot, even to people coming from a Mediterranean climate like that of Cyprus, and noisy. It is also a place with a lot of poverty, and a lot of in-your-face begging, and a fair number of hucksters and scammers around as well. It is also a very interesting city with a long history, and a lot of great architecture, but if you have literally a few hours to spare, and you come in the middle of the summer, and you have no choice but to go out in the middle of the day because you don’t have the benefit of being able to wait until the evening, you are not going to appreciate much of it. Cairo is also a big place. It is not as big as London, although is population probably is (and London’s population count includes places like Croydon and Kingston, which were incorporated into London very recently), but who would take a flight from, say, New York, take a brief ride down the M4 and a boat trip down the Thames, a visit to the Tower of London to take a few pictures of the “Beefeaters”, a two-hour shopping trip in the West End, a drive around Westminster and then go back up the M4 to Heathrow again? It would cost hundreds of dollars, would seem rather excessive, but it is the equivalent of what these day trips to Cairo cost.

Where I live, I’m on the edge of London, which is a major city of about ten million people. We often talk of “going to London”, but what that means is going to the Natural History Museum, or shopping in the West End, or to see a play or musical and have a meal, or to do a bit of business; we don’t think we can say we’ve “seen London” on the basis of a day’s visiting, as there is too much to see. What is the point of making a flying visit to a major city from far away? You will be too tired, after getting up early to make sure you get your flight, to appreciate much, particularly if the climate is inhospitable. The best time to visit a place like Cairo is in the winter, or any time except the height of summer, although this is not practical for a lot of people, particularly those with school-age children.

A better place for a flying visit from Cyprus, if they have to lay one on at all (and if they can manage it with the red tape) is Damascus, because it is not in the middle of the desert and has plenty of history and fine architecture (it is a candidate for the longest continually-inhabited city on earth), it has Roman and other ancient ruins within and nearby (and a lot of tourists who go to places like Greece, Cyprus and Turkey love those ruins), but what it doesn’t have is three stupid stone monstrosities plonked in the desert on its western fringes. Am I the only one who is left cold by the pyramids? They have no intricate stone carvings or other decorative features (admittedly, they might well have eroded over the centuries, like the sphinx) and are not even useful except to grave robbers; they are just monuments to the egos of the idiotic kings who had them built, who could not think of anything more beneficial to leave their people (and posterity generally).

I love travel; I like the excitement of seeing new places, which is one of the positive aspects of working as a driver, even though often I see little of any town or city and much of the countryside (which is fantastic if the countryside happens to be the South Downs, but not everywhere in the English countryside is that thrilling to look at). However, day trips to a city like Cairo, where there is grinding poverty, strike me as not quite right somehow, not to mention the effect flight has on the environment, and the offer of trips like this is a perfect example of the disproportion between the environmental damage caused by flight (massive amounts of carbon dioxide, straight into the sky) and the ease with which it is available.

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