A lifelong love of travel always begins somewhere. Maybe it’s a family road trip to a favorite vacation spot, or a weekend getaway with college friends. Perhaps a long-anticipated flight to a far-off destination opens a new world of possibilities for future experiences. Whatever it may be, anyone who is passionate about travel can identify a point when that passion came to be.
For Robyn Galloway, managing director of Innovative Travel Company, that starting point occurred early. Growing up on a farm in the Hawkes Bay region of New Zealand, Galloway says her mother brought home children’s books which, according to Galloway, “were set in fabled and exotic lands, filled with incredible illustrations of history and mystery.” The passion for travel created by these books was tempered a bit by the fact that international travel from New Zealand was an expensive proposition.
What was Galloway’s solution? Find a career that involves travel. And beginning in 1979, when she took a job in retail travel as a receptionist, Galloway embarked on a journey that led to founding Innovative Travel Company 11 years later with, as she recalls, “just a phone, a typewriter, and a fax machine.” From the company’s inception, Galloway wanted it to blaze a trail. “I was obsessed with creating amazing opportunities in countries which, at that time, were not on the main routes for tourists,” says Galloway.
These places included Egypt, Jordan, and Israel, all of which she had visited in the decade prior to the company’s beginning. “I really felt inspired to make these destinations more accessible,” explains Galloway. However, accessibility was not the company’s only priority. Safety was also a key component. “Keeping clients safe has always been part of our DNA,” she adds.
Though Jordan and Israel (as well as Turkey and New Zealand) continue to be popular destinations for Innovative Travel Company’s customers, Egypt is the country that has become a primary focus. What makes Egypt such a premier destination? “It’s part of biblical history,” Galloway explains.
While many factors have helped make Egypt a hub of activity for generations, she mentions one factor that has played a key role: geography.
“Its key location on the shores of the Mediterranean coast, and in Northern Africa, has resulted in intertwining civilizations through the millennia,” she details, specifically mentioning the location’s role in fostering strategic alliances. Now, centuries later, Egypt remains a premier destination for faith travelers and Galloway says, “There is a piece of history under every stone, with much still waiting to be discovered beneath the sand.”
Such an important (and vast) faith destination requires an even higher degree of planning and coordination, and that’s where Galloway and her team of experts come in. Innovative Travel Company has local offices in six Egyptian cities: Alexandria, Luxor, Hurghada, Sharm El Sheikh, Aswan, and Cairo.
Working from the Cairo office is staff member Elhamy ElZayat, who served as chair of the Egyptian Tourism Board for 15 years, has over 35 years of experience in Egypt’s tourism sector, and is a sought-after speaker on Egyptian history. Galloway, who has worked with ElZayat since 1996, explains that he helps ensure that visitors’ trips go smoothly because “he has our clients’ best interests at heart, and he is a huge asset and point of reassurance for potential clients.”
Reassurance is a focus of Galloway and her staff, and she prides herself on helping her travelers feel as comfortable as possible. “The ‘Innovative Difference’ in Egypt begins the moment clients are airside,” she says. “We have a license to meet all clients, including groups and FIT, prior to immigration. One of our airport reps, in addition to placing the required Egyptian visa inside the client’s U.S./Canadian passport, will express all clients through immigration. Once through immigration, another member of our airport team is waiting to meet clients and escort them to their modern, private, air-conditioned transfer vehicle. No matter how many flights have landed, clients do not wait. This seamless service is a terrific bonus after a long flight.”
This personal attention doesn’t end at the airport, as the company’s international clients have 24/7 local backup. Galloway ensures that local representatives are always on hand to assist with baggage handling and pre-registration at the company’s hotel partners. Speaking of hotels, Galloway says that great care is taken to match groups with the proper accommodations.
“In Egypt, as in many countries, hotel ratings can vary from North American ratings. We consider it critical to make regular site visits, so that hotels are personally inspected and known to us.” Galloway and her staff then assign updated rankings based on these in-person evaluations. These rankings are taken into account when designing programs for group and FIT bookings.
Of course, when it comes to Egypt itineraries, there are some obvious inclusions. Faith-based travelers will undoubtedly be interested in sites specifically named in the Scriptures. Egypt is one of the most frequently mentioned places in the Bible, with references found in Genesis and throughout the Gospels.
“The Bible is rich in accounts of the pharaonic life in ancient Egypt,” Galloway says. “Therefore, when planning a trip, it is important to include sites which are a visible part of the pharaonic era, as well as specific pilgrimage sites.”
These sites might be from the life of Abraham, who journeyed to Egypt to escape a famine. Or they might be from the life of his great-grandson Joseph, who ended up in Egypt involuntarily when he was sold into slavery before becoming the ruler, second only to the king. Galloway specifically mentions the extensive irrigation system that was overseen by Joseph, an example of which can still be found in the Oasis of Faiyum, near Cairo.
Though many of the Bible’s most well-known mentions of Egypt occur in the Old Testament, it was also the destination for Joseph, Mary, and the baby Jesus as they fled during the reign of King Herod. Galloway notes that many churches and monasteries were built at sites linked to the family. These include Old Cairo, which was, as Galloway says “an important location visited by the Holy Family. Here the family took shelter in a cave, where the Church of Abu Serga (St. Sergius) was built.” Galloway also mentions two other popular sites in the Coptic Quarter of Cairo: the Monastery of St. George and the Coptic Museum.
Galloway says one area near Cairo that faith-based travelers will want to discover is Wadi El Natrun. “Christianity reached this area in 330 when St. Macarius the Great arrived, “Galloway says. “The area became a sanctuary for Christians to escape Roman oppression, so it is home to some of the earliest Christian monasteries. It was also a source for sodium carbonate and sodium bicarbonate, which was used for mummification and glass manufacturing in ancient Egypt.”
One biblical site that is currently not part of Innovative Travel Company’s itineraries is Mt. Sinai. As of this writing, the U.S. State Department has advised that travel to that location not take place. “This is reinforced by the local advice of our Cairo Director Elhamy ElZayat,” explains Galloway, who adds, “we are keeping Mt. Sinai under review.”
Of course, groups can’t visit Egypt without experiencing perhaps the country’s best-known sites: the Pyramids and the Sphinx. Innovative Travel Company’s Egyptian itineraries always include these two landmarks, and Galloway suggests that Memphis and Sakkara be included as well as at least one Egyptian museum; she recommends the new Grand Egyptian Museum. Scheduled to open in 2021, it will give travelers yet another means by which to learn of the country’s rich history.
When asked about under-the-radar Egyptian destinations, Galloway specifically mentions Tell Basta. It was prophesied by Ezekiel that the once-proud city, formerly known as Bubastis, would fall into ruins. Today, travelers can see a well from the first century, purported to have provided water for the Holy Family. Galloway also mentions Maadi, located near Cairo, which is believed to be the point where the Holy Family embarked on the Nile to escape Herod’s soldiers.
Speaking of the Nile, cruises along Africa’s longest river are always popular among travelers to Egypt. Galloway notes that the shortest Nile cruise is a three-night journey from Luxor to Aswan, or vice versa. She adds that any Nile cruise boat featured on an Innovative Travel Company itinerary is personally inspected by Galloway’s staff beforehand. This speaks to the thorough nature of the company’s careful planning of its Egyptian offerings, and leads to not only a quality product, but also a safe tour.
“In over 30 years, all Innovative Travel clients have traveled safely in Egypt,” explains Galloway, “with zero incidents of robbery or any other crime against our clients. We have built our reputation on trusted services, client safety, and deep-reaching local connections.”
Egypt’s rich heritage also makes the country a prime candidate for repeat visits. “There are new discoveries in Egypt reported almost on a weekly basis,” Galloway shares. “It is challenging to grasp this intense history in just one visit, so there is always an excuse to visit again. I have made multiple visits and learn something new every time.”
Galloway adds that this is true of faith travel in general. “Traveling to ancient sites and geographic locations, described in both the Old and New testaments, enables a greater perspective and understanding of life in biblical times,” she explains. “Many depart with a richer spiritual insight into the life and times in ancient Egypt, more deeply understanding the challenges for the Holy Family and the early believers.”
This is precisely why Innovative Travel Company values its membership in the Faith Travel Association.
“Faith is a part of our world and brings many together, regardless of our home base,” Galloway says. “FTA is a wonderful way to meet and connect with North American companies who deeply care about their clients. It is a privilege to work with tour operators from around the world who are equally committed to the best outcome.”
Top photo: The Church of St. George in Cairo
Photos by CC Wikimedia Commons/Mohammedghorayeb: bit.ly/2GFVh63