These days there may be more mummies than tourists in the Egyptian Museum in Cairo, and few footprints in the sand around the Pyramids.
Visitors to Cairo’s wonders are scarce, a little over a week after the military deposed the first freely elected leader and deadly street violence shook the capital, making life harder for the millions of Egyptians who depend on tourism.
But for those making a living from the visitors, there are signs of hope. They are glad to see the back of ousted president Mohammed Mursi, believing his Islamist rule would have killed tourism.
“I’m smiling from ear to ear, even though we haven’t seen a disaster for our business this bad in all our lives,” said Mohammed Khodar in front of his perfume shop – one of the few businesses around the Pyramids that is not shuttered.
“Under Mursi prices rose, there was violence and the tourists went to beach resorts, not here. We want a democracy that can help with tourism, not religious rule,” he said.
Before the 2011 uprising that ousted Egypt’s veteran autocrat Hosni Mubarak, tourism was worth more than a tenth of Egypt’s economic output. In 2010, 14.7 million visitors came and generated $12.5 billion in earnings.
Mursi’s government raised taxes on alcohol in December but backed down after the move was criticized by the tourism sector and by liberals.
The appointment of a member of a hardline former militant group as the governor of Luxor – home to the country’s greatest Pharaonic temples – led many to wonder whether the government was committed to its ideology at the expense of development.
“We felt this contempt for our archaeological sites in their rhetoric, that they somehow represented paganism,” said Ahmed El-Khadem, a former chairman of the Egypt Tourism Authority and now shadow tourism minister for a liberal party.
El-Khadem says that while the current instability has scared off tourists from Cairo, the army was right to intervene in politics and oust the Islamists.
“How could you blame the doctor for saving the patient’s life?” he asked. “It hurts now, but it will get better.”
For its part, Mursi and members of his Muslim Brotherhood’s political wing said they were committed to maintaining a welcoming atmosphere for tourism and improving the industry.
In the first quarter of 2013, about three million tourists visited Egypt, a 14.6 percent rise from the same period last year, Hisham Zaazou, tourism minister appointed by the ousted government, said in May.
In happier times at Cairo’s Egyptian Museum, hundreds would jostle to catch a glimpse of King Tut’s golden burial mask or Ramses II’s 3,000-year-old features.
Now, the occasional visitor snaps pictures of armored personnel carriers lined up outside.
“There were whole rooms empty, with just soldiers walking around in them. It looks like they were bored and trying to get out of the heat,” said one recent U.S. college graduate, adding that she hadn’t told her parents of her Egypt visit lest they worry.
At the Pyramids, horse and buggy drivers desperate for fares pound on the windows of taxis carrying tourists.
“Sometimes I could make 100 dollars a day. Mursi’s gone, good, but still things aren’t as good as they were under Hosni,” said carriage driver Magdi Hammam, lamenting the 2011 overthrow of Mubarak.
“I learned English here, I made my living here, but now there’s zero. Zero tourists today, zero tourists yesterday. But we have hope now,” he said.
The few tourists see a silver lining in the current troubles.
“We sensed total desperation,” said American tourist Sloan Holzman, after being approached by sellers of papyrus souvenirs.
“They were pleading with us to stay, and it’s really depressing to see what they’re going through. But on the bright side, we had the whole pyramids to ourselves!” he said.
Additional reporting by Tom Finn. Editing by Andrew Roche.
Copyright (2013) Thomson Reuters.