Tourists once flocked to Luxor for its ancient 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 ouster of Islamist president Mohamed Morsi 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 (up to $420 or 300 euros) 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 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 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 percent 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.
Vendors dispute recovery
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, dressed in a traditional gallabiya.
“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 city. The once thriving tourist hub has become into 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 bloody government crackdown on Morsi’s supporters after his ouster has left more than 1,000 people killed in clashes and derailed any chances of a pick-up 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 Morsi 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 Morsi.
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 one percent. Today, it is 18 percent 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.
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.
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 in fluent French.