Luxor balloon crash a new blow to battered Egypt tourism

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Egypt’s ancient temple city of Luxor faces a crippling blow to its tourism industry, already reeling from unrest following the country’s uprising, after a horrific hot-air balloon crash that killed 19 tourists.

“The accident will have a devastating effect on tourism,” said Yasser al-Zambali, who owns the Dream Balloon company in Luxor, one of a handful of balloon companies that organizes sunrise flights over the city.

“How can I now convince other tourists to pay a single dollar to ride a balloon now?”

The hot-air balloon exploded and plunged to earth during a dawn flight Tuesday, killing 19 tourists from Hong Kong, Japan, France, Britain and Hungary.

Residents and tour industry professionals fear that the accident will keep more tourists away, as Egypt struggles to revive the industry responsible for much of its foreign currency revenue.

Frequent unrest around the country has contributed to a painful economic crisis since 2011, when a popular uprising ousted long-time president Hosni Mubarak, and foreign reserves have plunged more than $20 billion since then.

“We are in high season, but there are just a few dozen tourists,” said Zambali.

Raymond Khalaf, reservations manager at a five-star hotel on the banks of the Nile, said occupancy was languishing at 35 percent.

“Usually, at this time of year, it is 90 percent,” he told AFP.

At the luxury Winter Palace hotel, where crime novelist Agatha Christie is said to have stayed while writing her thriller “Death on the Nile,” occupancy was just 40 percent.

“The situation isn’t bad because of the revolution; it’s bad because of the violence that has followed,” said Mohammed Ali, the hotel’s assistant manager.

It is not the first time that tourism in Luxor has had to fight back from a disaster.

The industry took years to recover from a 1997 massacre that saw Islamist gunmen open fire on tourists as they toured an ancient temple complex, killing 58 foreigners as well as their four Egyptian guards.

The bloody attack was the culmination of a series of bombings and assaults that took place in the 1980s and 1990s after the assassination of president Anwar Sadat.

Egypt has been gripped by new political turmoil since Mubarak was toppled, and unrest and insecurity have been on the increase since November when Islamist President Mohamed Mursi issued a now-repealed decree expanding his powers.

While the decree was in effect, a controversial Islamist-drafted constitution was rushed through, further dividing Egypt between Mursi’s mainly Islamist supporters and a wide-ranging opposition, and sparking violence on the streets.

Residents say the balloon accident is the latest in a string of problems to cast a shadow over Luxor, a giant open-air museum of a city that includes the Valley of the Kings and the temple complexes of Luxor and Karnak.

An upsurge of violence in January has brought more anxiety to the industry.

“The violence on the second anniversary of the revolution caused around a thousand cancellations at this hotel,” said Ali at the Winter Palace hotel.

Tour guide Ahmed Sayyed said he used to work with two groups a day before the revolution.

“Now I have one group every three days. My income has decreased by 75 percent,” he said.

Residents say the city is in desperate need of development, and new infrastructure is needed to attract tourists.

One of the few people roaming the ancient sites Tuesday, a Danish tourist who gave his name as Martin, said “the situation is worse than I imagined, especially considering the lack of organization and chaos.”

Outside the luxury hotels on the palm-fringed Nile corniche, dozens of horse-drawn carriages stood idly waiting for customers.

In 2010, occupancy was at 100 percent and some hotels couldn’t cope with the bookings, one tourism authority official said.

“But now we are in high season and the city is almost deserted,” the official said.

“I just want to hear some good news that will revive tourism,” said shop owner Osama Hamdy.

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