Tour guide Abu Ali has seen Luxor come to a halt before. The last time Islamist militants drove foreign visitors away, and now the historic Egyptian city must come to grips with a local tragedy and the fall-out from chaos in far-away Cairo.
Few tourists stroll through the corridors of Queen Hatshepsut’s temple – a 3,500-year-old archaeological wonder and once Luxor’s busiest tourist site – occasionally intercepted by a handful of vendors trying to sell trinkets at a discount.
Luxor is in shock after 19 people, mostly Asian and European visitors, were killed on Tuesday when a hot-air balloon crashed.
But Abu Ali, like many in Luxor, believes the greatest threat to local livelihoods comes from power struggles 500 km (300 miles) away in Cairo, which he says only provoke street violence while the vital tourist trade is neglected.
Some even long for the relative stability that Egypt enjoyed before the uprising that toppled Hosni Mubarak in 2011.
“Back in 2010, temples were packed and tomb visits were sold out in a matter of hours. Now the place is near-empty,” said the 43-year-old tour guide, whose full name is Al-Jahlan al-Azab Abu Ali.
Luxor, home to the Valley of the Kings and Tutankhamun’s tomb, recovered from the blow 15 years ago when militants armed with guns and knives descended on Queen Hatshepsut’s temple and slaughtered more than 60 people, mostly tourists.
“I watched Luxor come to a halt in 1997 after the terrible terrorist attack and now I see it struggling again because politicians in Cairo are busy bickering with each other and neglecting one of Egypt’s main revenue providers,” he said.
Visitor numbers across Egypt hit 14.7 million in 2010 but slumped to 9.8 million during the year of the revolution. Numbers picked up to 11.5 million last year but, two years after the uprising, they remain far below the peak.
Political conflict has spilt regularly onto the streets of Cairo and other cities, with images of violence broadcast to the home countries of the mainly Asian and European tourists that Egypt needs to attract.
Luxor residents have also protested against Islamist President Mohamed Mursi. Several thousand took to the streets late last year when he issued a decree condemned by his opponents as a power grab. But the demonstration was peaceful and local people are protective of tourists, their main source of income.
Some television stations cut out the most horrifying pictures of the collapsed balloon ablaze and plunging into a field, but others showed it all.
But tourists from France, Britain and Germany told Reuters they felt safe in Luxor, brushing aside the balloon crash as an unfortunate accident. They said the image of Egypt as politically unstable was more damaging.
“We feel very safe here. This is our second visit to Egypt. More people will come, eventually, when there is less a sense of chaos and more a sense of calm,” said one French tourist, who declined to give his name.
Egyptian politics have become polarised as Islamists, liberals, leftists and the old guard of Mubarak’s era argue over everything from elections to the economy.
The leaders of al-Gama’a al-Islamiya, in whose name the militants staged the 1997 attack, are now among the politicians struggling over the future of Egypt, having years ago renounced violence and now signed up to the democratic process.
Luxor’s Governor Ezzat Saad said he did not believe the balloon tragedy had affected the flow of tourists. “I checked with a number of top hotels and there are no cancellations,” he told Reuters.
He too pinned the blame for Luxor’s problems on events in Cairo. “We are unfortunate in Luxor because we are paying the price of what our brothers are doing in Cairo,” he said. “Luxor is safe and stable. We do not have problems relating to tourists. But the accident has added to our misfortune.”
“Putting our political differences aside, we must realise that the tourism industry is of concern to all Egyptians and is the livelihood of a sizeable stratum of society,” he said.
YEARNING FOR MUBARAK DAYS
Prospects for political calm are dim. A number of opposition parties announced a boycott this week of parliamentary elections to be held from April until June.
Abu Ali says it is difficult for people in his profession not to yearn for the days of Mubarak, which were marked by corruption and repression but when tourism was at its peak.
“The antiquities authorities worked to increase the number of sites available to tourists to increase revenue. We do not feel this is happening now,” he said.
One site that could boost Luxor’s revenue was the tomb of Nefertari in the Valley of the Queens, which is currently closed and unused, he said.
The balloon crash has directly hit Luxor’s tourism employment, at least temporarily, as the government has ordered 40 balloon companies to halt flights pending the outcome of an investigation into what caused the crash. (Additional reporting by Reuters TV; Editing by David Stamp and Sonya Hepinstall)