x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 17 January 2018

Egypt turmoil turns tourist hub Luxor into ghost town

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

Luxor’s horse and carriage owners once made a good living from tourists. Since the political upheavals, the city gets very few visitors. Khaled Desouki / AFP
Luxor’s horse and carriage owners once made a good living from tourists. Since the political upheavals, the city gets very few visitors. Khaled Desouki / AFP

LUXOR // Tourists once flocked to Luxor for its pharaonic treasures, but as Egypt witnesses sweeping political upheavals, the visitors have 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 removal of Islamist president, Mohammed Morsi, in July has virtually stopped tourist arrivals.

Egypt’s political upheaval first began with the 2011 uprising that toppled 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 (Dh1,542) a month. Today, I am happy if I have 10 pounds in my pocket,” Salah said.

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

It is 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 in which dozens of foreign tourists were killed.

The 1997 attack by 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 people.

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-carriage owners in Luxor, 20 have watched their animals starve to death.

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

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

In one hotel lobby, about six employees light up a tall Christmas tree, but unfortunately the festive period is not promising at all.

The government crackdown on Mr Morsi’s supporters after his removal from power has killed more than 1,000 people and derailed any chances of a pickup in tourist arrivals, with many foreign governments issuing travel warnings for Egypt.

Although Luxor has been unaffected by the unrest, local guides and tourist operators accuse Mr Morsi and his Muslim Brotherhood supporters 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 toppling Mr Morsi.

The transition envisages a referendum on a new constitution, 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 one per cent. Today, it is 18 per cent and continues to grow,” he said, adding that 28 of the 255 boats are already operating.

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

he 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.

Another seller said the mantra to survive these days was to sell cheap.

“It is so cheap now that you can buy gifts for even those you dislike,” he said.

Agence France-Presse