GIZA, Egypt-Standing next to the Great Pyramid of Giza on the edge of a vast desert just outside Cairo is a jaw-dropping experience for more than one reason: The pyramids are immense and the crowds are few.
On a Tuesday morning visit to one of the most famous spots in the world, one tour bus and four vans sat in a nearly empty parking lot. No lines formed at the ticket counters. A bank of turnstiles sat unused, with a single worker running a metal detector for a handful of visitors trickling into the site.
This isn't typical. Tour guides and locals say the pyramids are usually packed this time of year-like Disney World in June. But Egypt's revolution and ongoing turmoil have dealt a critical blow to the tourism industry that comprises a major chunk of the country's already-fledgling economy.
To those watching Egypt from the outside, it's one of the less-noticed challenges facing a country with ever-mounting difficulties. But it's a visible reality for Egyptians who depend on visitors to sustain their economy and wonder if the crowds will ever return.
These days, the experience of taking in the pyramids on a cool morning during one of the best months to visit Egypt almost feels like a private tour. A couple of tour groups mill around in one corner, and a handful of visitors dot the edges of the eight-ton stones that comprise the pyramid's base. Indeed, when I trekked to the far side of the Great Pyramid and stood in it's immense shadow, I found that for a few minutes I was viewing one of the Seven Wonders of the World completely alone.
If that's a rewarding experience for a visitor, it isn't rewarding for ticket sellers, tour guides, and vendors hawking postcards and tiny plastic pyramids made in China. Ramez Salama, a local tour guide and lecturer with a university degree in Egyptology, said that he is experiencing about 15 percent of his usually bustling business. "It's sad," he said. "Nobody's coming."
It's obvious that Salama is still adjusting to smaller groups. In the ancient temple at the foot of the Great Sphinx, his enthusiastic voice booms around the columns and granite walls. Midway through an explanation of Egyptian embalming practices, Salama reminded himself not to shout: He had five people in his group, not the usual 20.
It's a reality shared by shopkeepers just outside the pyramids' grounds. At a large store full of intricate jewelry, handmade backgammon sets, and custom-carved tables, five salesmen milled around with no customers. The shopkeepers said the store is usually packed with tourists leaving nearby sites.
By midday, crowds were picking up at other tourist spots, and larger groups were flowing into Cairo's renowned Egyptian Museum. Salama, an evangelical Christian and a member of a local Presbyterian church, said he's hopeful that tourists will return to Egypt soon, though he knows that political instability could continue to cripple his business.
While many Egyptians-especially Christians-are fleeing Egypt in the face of uncertainty and economic hardship, Salama doesn't want to go. He retains a deep enthusiasm for his Christian heritage, his friends and family, and his work explaining the country's history and monuments. "I love Egypt," he said. "I want to be here."
These days, Salama is tweaking his work, adding commentary on the sites of Egypt's revolution last year. "Now you are not far from the famous Tahrir Square that changed the course of history," he announced to his small group. "We just don't know if it's for the good or the bad."