Political unrest scares tourists away from Luxor, Egypt

Political upheaval has scared visitors away from one of country'smost popular tourist destinations, causing economic hardship

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 31 December, 2013, 4:48pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 01 January, 2014, 3:22am

Tourists once flocked to Luxor for its pharaonic treasures, but as Egypt witnesses sweeping political upheavals, the visitors have simply vanished from this famed temple city.

Christmas used to be particularly busy, as tens of thousands of visitors thronged Luxor's famous temples, but fresh unrest that followed the army's ousting of Islamist president Mohammed Mursi in July has virtually stopped tourist arrivals.

Egypt's political unrest first began with the 2011 uprising that toppled long-time ruler Hosni Mubarak and triggered a wave of events that has rocked the tourism industry, which was vital to the country's economy.

Salah, 51, earned a living showing tourists around Luxor in his horse carriage, but now the father of four, the youngest of whom is just 18 months old, has no customers and his cart has lain idle for months.

"Before, I used to earn 2,000 to 3,000 Egyptian pounds (HK$2,220 to HK$3,330) a month. Today, I am happy if I have 10 pounds in my pocket," Salah said.

Luxor, a city of around 500,000 residents on the banks of the Nile in southern Egypt, is one of the country's main tourist hubs. It has born the brunt of the upheavals of the past three years.

It includes an open-air museum of intricate temples, tombs of pharaonic rulers and landmarks such as the Winter Palace hotel where crime novelist Agatha Christie is said to have written Death on the Nile.

Before 2011, it attracted several million tourists annually, drawn by the Valley of the Kings and Valley of the Queens, and the mortuary temple of Queen Hatshepsut - scene of a 1997 massacre that killed dozens of foreign tourists.

The 1997 attack by radical Islamist militants dented tourism, but in the years leading up to 2011 the industry was on the rise again and Luxor was once again a popular destination.

Most families like Salah's live on earnings from tourism, a sector that makes up over 11 per cent of Egypt's gross domestic product and until recently employed more than four million.

But the days when about 10,000 tourists arrived daily in Luxor have gone.

One could barely walk through the crowded streets three years ago, but now idle guides loiter between the towering columns of historic structures.

Salah lives in a three-room house with a courtyard where his horse is tethered.

"I had another horse, but I sold it," he said.

"The choice was between feeding my children or the two horses," Salah said, adding that among the 340 horse carriages in Luxor, 20 saw their animals starve to death.

He is not the only one facing difficulties in the city. The once-thriving tourist hub has become a virtual ghost town.

The airport is empty and taxis wait outside hotels that hardly have any occupants.

The bloody government crackdown on Mursi's supporters after his ousting has left more than 1,000 people killed in clashes and derailed any chances of an increase in tourist arrivals, with many foreign governments issuing travel warnings for Egypt.

Although Luxor has not been the scene of any unrest, local guides and tourist operators accuse Mursi and his Muslim Brotherhood of scaring away the tourists.

For "stability" to return, Luxor residents want Egypt's interim authorities to quickly carry out the democratic transition they had promised after ousting Mursi.

The transition envisages a referendum on a new constitution next month, to be followed by parliamentary and presidential elections in mid-2014.

But Luxor governor Tareq Saadeddine is optimistic.

"For the past three months the [hotel] occupancy rate was less than 1 per cent. Today, it is 18 per cent and continues to grow," he said, adding that 28 of 255 tourist boats are now operating.

But local vendors are less cheery. Mohamed Hussein, 23, swears he has not made a single sale in months.

Hussein said vendors like him were surviving on savings or by selling their wives' jewellery. He said that for "six months" he had not paid his shop's electricity bills.