When it comes to travel, it’s not uncommon to have expectations fall short of reality. Just about every globetrotter has encountered this to some degree. Few places on Earth, however, offer such dramatic divergence between expectation and reality as you will find at the famed Pyramids of Giza.
While the structures themselves—which include the Great Pyramid, three smaller pyramids, and the Great Sphinx—are undoubtedly spectacular, the experience of visiting them doesn’t quite stack up. In fact, it’s outright abysmal. Apologies if that disappoints or deters you—by all means go see them, just be warned of what is to come, because the fact is that the Egyptian government is failing to manage and protect the last of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World.
Let’s look at the problem, then explore a few solutions.
First, the battle at the ticket window. Here you will be assailed by touts and scammers aggressively offering “deals” to help you circumvent the snail-paced line. It readily becomes apparent that there is a de facto two-tiered system for entry: one for (mostly white) foreigners who can afford the markup to jump the line; another for everyone else. So, shameless English-speakers go first while Egyptians wait their turn.
For those who wait, arriving at the window brings new trouble. Now you literally have to shove your way into a mosh-pit of shouting touts who are visibly in cahoots with the ticket vendor. Here even though you’re at the front, you’re still pushed and cajoled by scammers attempting to convince you to exchange money for all manner of services while roving hands seek unprotected pockets.
I’ve been to hectic historic locations around the world, and I’ve never experienced anything like it. And I’m not alone in my annoyance. As the travel blog Time Travel Turtle put it, “The biggest problem I had at the pyramids was the constant hassle of people trying to scam you or trick you into paying for their services.”
And as you’re fighting your way to the front, there’s little opportunity to examine the ticket options listed (somewhat unclearly) above the window—you mostly want to pay the main entry fee then get the hell out of there. As a consequence, you will almost certainly neglect to buy the add-on ticket necessary to visit the interiors of the pyramids. Later in the complex you’ll notice that few visitors end up seeing anything but the exteriors—because who would ever want to go through the ordeal of the ticket line twice?
Once inside, you’d think touts and scammers would be locked out. Not so. Throughout the complex you are constantly—constantly—set upon by still more hostile vendors, still more belligerent scammers.
Immediately upon entering, my partner and I were approached by two men wearing official-looking lanyards who requested our ticket stubs. When we hesitated they smiled and assured us that we didn’t have to worry now that we were inside, saying they worked there. I gave one of them our stubs and he immediately took them and stormed off until we forcefully demanded that he return them, which he begrudgingly did. We’re still not sure what, precisely, his angle was, but apparently it’s somewhat common.
From there we were relentlessly harassed—and, in the case of my partner, occasionally sexually harassed—by vendors selling souvenirs, camel and horseback riders relentlessly pitching rides (on animals that frequently show signs of neglect and abuse), scammers who offer free gifts and photos then angrily demand money if you are rube enough to take them up on it, and what appeared to be actual staff members (but I could never be sure) demanding money for… nothing at all. They’d gesture at some view or etching that you were already looking at, then request money for acting as your “guide.” This, again, is a common experience among visitors.
On top of all this, the general protection of the site is outright worrisome. Tourists are pretty much free to do as they please, so, for example, you’ll frequently encounter stone walls into which scores of people have carved their initials and other messages, even into bas reliefs and etchings of hieroglyphics. Visitors are climbing all over the place. One generally gets the impression that nothing is being done to keep these 4,500-year-old wonders standing, and that their grandeur is being eroded not by time but by a sea of unmitigated tourism.
I did speak with one visitor whose experience was the exact opposite of mine. According to travel writer Johanna Read—who went some six months prior to me—she encountered few scammers and her visit was calm and organized. We agreed that the difference might have had something to do with her off-season timing and the rapid worsening of Egypt’s economic situation between then and now, which is perhaps causing residents to become more desperate.
“It was a brawl getting the tickets…Watch your stuff and trust no one.” “Worst experience ever. Full of scams.” “This was a live or die situation…We literally had to push and fight with locals (who were fighting us and each other) to get to the counter.” “Absolute embarrassment for Egypt. The area around this is filthy, full of scammers… Egypt really needs to get a grip on this place.” “A total mess… I feel sorry for the pyramids.”
So what can be done?
First of all, the Egyptian Ministry of Tourism needs to take dramatic steps to manage the ticketing situation. The present system—or lack thereof—is absurd. It needs clearly indicated lines and signage, and the removal of scammers and touts from the ticketing area.
Second, onsite vendors and staff need to be properly trained and, ideally, certified. In some cases it is clear that the staff and even some of the scammers are highly knowledgeable about the complex. With proper training and decent pay, they could be a credit to the experience rather than an onus.
Finally, the pyramids and other sites themselves must be better protected. A few weeks after visiting Giza, I went to Carthage, Tunis, where over the past five years they have taken dramatic steps to improve the protection of their historic ruins—even through COVID, even under difficult economic circumstances—and not only will they remain safe for the benefit of future generations, but the overall experience has improved. Egypt can do the same.
Some will point out, as I already have, that Egypt is experiencing a severe economic downturn, and will suggest that the country cannot afford to take the steps I’ve outlined. My response:
- The Giza Pyramids host nearly 15 million visitors annually who pay between $13 and $20 each depending on their ticket package. That’s in the ballpark of $200 million annually. Where is all that money going?
- Egyptian President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi has overseen the construction of a new administrative capital (far from the heart of Cairo, out of reach of protesters, but that is another matter) at a cost of $59 billion.
- An $18 million renovation of the Giza complex was announced two years ago, but seemingly no progress has been made.
- Egypt ranks among the most corrupt nations in the world, and the problem is getting worse.
Suffice to say that Egypt seems to be making some curious decisions about where and how it spends its money. Surely it can afford to improve the pay and training of the staff at its most treasured monument and take other steps to protect it and improve the experience it offers?
In the meantime, if you visit, be prepared to be overwhelmed and fed up by the whole thing.
I won’t suggest that you skip it, for there’s truly nothing like it on Earth. It’s only a shame that the quality of the experience isn’t relative to the magnificence of the pyramids themselves.