Middle East

Luxor struggles as turmoil keeps Egypt tourists away

Media playback is unsupported on your device
Media captionThe BBC's Ahmed Maher visits one attraction where things "have never been worse"

Abdul Salam Omar inherited a thriving antiquities business from his father in Luxor. The southern Egyptian city is famous around the world as a giant open-air museum, with thousands of years of history on display.

For decades tourists used to flock to his shop in the old market, to buy statuettes of Pharaonic gods, ancient Egyptian queens, papyrus art and glass scent bottles.

Now he has almost no business left. The political turmoil gripping the country has crippled his industry.

"The situation is really bad," said Omar. "I'm lucky I don't have children. My friends are struggling to feed their families."

Boom to bust

The tourist trade used to earn billions of dollars and provide work for millions. Now, things have never been worse.

Image caption Shop owner Omar laid off all his workers after tourists stopped visiting Luxor

The Egyptians have toppled two presidents in just two and a half years. Tourism was already suffering by the time Hosni Mubarak was ousted in February 2011. But during President Mohammed Morsi's year in office, it went into freefall.

"In 2010 tourism reached its peak. I used to earn $150 a day and hired seven workers, as I couldn't cope with the increasing demand by myself. Now they are all gone - and most days I earn nothing at all," said Omar.

Tourism officials have seen this mainstay of the Egyptian economy go from boom to bust.

"Tourism is the country's economic lifeline, representing almost 12% of Egypt's national income. It used to earn around $18 billion a year. At this time of year, hotel occupancy rates here in Luxor would be 80%. Today it is just 4%," said Mohamed Othman, the head of Luxor's Chamber of Tourism.

Image caption In better times, people would be seen queuing out the door of the entrance to the Luxor Temple

Mr Othman said Luxor was feeling the tourist slump more acutely than anywhere else in the country.

He explained: "Morsi made some decisions that really scared the tourists away and sent very negative messages. His appointment of a member of a terrorist group as governor of the city in June was the final straw."

There was a public outcry in Luxor when Mohammed Morsi appointed a senior member of the ex-militant group Gamaa Islamiya, just a few weeks before his overthrow.

The group is notorious for its violent past that includes a string of deadly attacks against government officials and civilians during the 1990s, as Islamist jihadists fought to destabilise the state.

The deadliest attack claimed by the group took place in 1997 when militants massacred 58 tourists and four Egyptians at a temple site near Luxor.

Local people, including many working in the tourist industry, staged a sit-in outside the governor's offices until Mr Morsi overturned his controversial decision.

Uphill struggle

Mr Othman remains optimistic. He says the tourist industry can recover.

"We plan to embark on a European tour to market Egypt's landmarks. We will offer very attractive packages indeed, seizing on the rise in the US dollar against the local currency."

But despite his upbeat assessment, Luxor faces an uphill struggle to regain its position.

Tourism here is dying. Hotels that were once full now stand virtually empty. Carriage owners stand in the summer heat with their horses, calling out to local people in the hope one will agree to take a ride.

Down by the Nile, the fleet of floating hotels that used to ferry tourists from Luxor to Aswan is mostly idle. Dozens are rusting at their moorings.

Tourism used to be one of life's certainties in Egypt. Political uncertainty has all but killed it.