Jane Akshar’s life story has all the makings of a best-seller: success, tragedy, scandal and love. Up until about eight years ago, she was living a relatively normal existence as an IT consultant in London with the hobby of veraciously reading everything on Egypt—a passion she’d cultivated over the years.
“My love for Egypt started at age 9 when my grandmother gave me a book about Tutankhamun; I’ve found it fascinating ever since,” she says.
Akshar started traveling to Egypt from her home in England in 1979, always employing guides to take her around. In 2000, she booked a tour with Mahmoud Jahlan, a guide who got to know her family fairly well.
Back in London, Akshar was working long days. In 2002, everything stopped when her husband of 12 years died of cancer. The event was a serious wake up call.
“Cancer is a wonderful thing to show you that money doesn’t mean everything; good health is more important,” she says.
Vacation turned permanent
Later that year, Akshar and her 11-year-old daughter traveled to Egypt and contacted Jahlan. Once in the African country, the guide inquired about her husband and she told him the sad news. Then, the unthinkable happened.
“He went all romantic on me; I was like ‘Oh my God’—I had no intention of being Queen Victoria,” she jokes.
From there, life moved at lightening speed—within three months she and Jahlan were married and by mid-2003, Akshar and her daughter had relocated to Luxor, Egypt.
“It was a huge scandal,” she says.
Akshar quit her consulting business and dove head first into Egyptian life. To make money, she and Jahlan launched Flats in Luxor Group, a vacation rental company. They started with four flats—he helped build the structures, she worked the marketing and online side of the business. The company was geared toward the British traveler and from the start; Akshar knew it would be a success.
“British people love to use self catering accommodations but are scared to be in the hands of an Egyptian; with a boring name like Jane, travelers knew I was very British and would trust me; it made a lot of sense,” she says.
The challenges of business in the Middle East
Now, eight years later, Akshar and Jahlan have 27 flats and five villas for rent on the West Bank and East Bank of Luxor. While she’s happy to have made a go of her business, she’s quick to talk about challenges faced along the way. For starters, the culture of business is very different in Egypt than in Britain.
“In England, there is so much advice on setting up a business—leaflets, websites, rules, regulations—in Egypt, it is just chaos,” she says, adding that rules change depending on whom you ask.
Punctuality is also a serious challenge. For example, a business meeting may be booked for a specific time, but it could end up happening two hours (sometimes even two days) later.
“And when you finally have the meeting, you spend an hour having a cup of tea and talking about your children before getting on to business,” she says.
Akshar has learned to accept these challenges. She admits life has been relatively easy for her thanks to the ethnicity of her husband.
“There are rules for foreigners and rules for Egyptians; if I were just a Brit coming here, I would have gone through the red tape to get a license and such, but because my husband is Egyptian, we just started building flats and renting them out,” she says.
So she never got a business license? Isn’t that illegal?
“Yes, we did get a license but it wasn’t until a few years into our business—Egyptians don’t worry about the legal side of things too much,” she says.
And how does payroll work?
“We have loads of employees, but everything is paid in cash,” she says.
What about taxes?
“That is Mahmoud’s side of the business; every once in a while he comes to me and says we have to pay the government money,” says Akshar.
Egypt isn’t the most popular vacation destination these days, primarily because of the uprising surrounding longtime Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. And although Luxor is a whopping eight hours south of Cairo, Akshar says she’s still felt the effects on tourism.
“We’ve seen a huge drop in our bookings—last month I got three bookings and last year at the same time I had 38 bookings,” she says.
So how is her company surviving?
“I survive on Egyptology; I’ve written e-books on the topic and we also offer our flats to those working on archeological digs,” says Akshar.
Now her strategy is to market as much as possible. She’s spending time creating videos, spreading the word about her business on Facebook and Google and crossing her fingers that business will return to Luxor.
She says, “I feel that it will bounce back—we are not aiming to be millionaires, we are just aiming to have work and provide a future for our Egyptian employees.”