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Egypt: Luxor tourism faced with toughest crisis since 2011 turmoil

By Abir Sorour
Posted on Friday, 2 April 2021 17:51, updated on Saturday, 3 April 2021 00:05

Tourists visit Karnak Temple, following an outbreak of coronavirus, in Luxor
Tourists visit Karnak Temple, following an outbreak of coronavirus, in Luxor, Egypt March 9, 2020. REUTERS/Mohamed Abd El Ghany

Hit hard by the pandemic and with minimal government support, tourism professionals in Egypt's ancient city of Luxor and across the country have been forced to change occupations to support their families. With tourism a fifth of Egypt's economy, many are praying for the return of lucrative cruise ship passengers.

Some 22 ancient Egyptian mummies from the Cairo Museum in Tahrir Square await their transfer to a new museum in Fustat, hoping to spark fresh tourist interest. But their home town – where these mummies were buried thousands of years ago –  is in dire economic straits.

Luxor remains one of Egypt’s touristic gems with dozens of pharaonic monuments, including a number of the world’s oldest and intact temples. It’s also home to the ‘Valley of the Kings’, the main resting place to dozens of kings and queens from the New Kingdom.

It was also here, just a year ago, where the first coronavirus cases were reported. It lead at first to panic and government denials, followed by massive cancellations of reservations, affecting the lives of thousands of Egyptians living in the ancient city.

After months of going home empty-handed, many freelance tour guides and souvenir vendors abandoned the place.

Tourism, around 20% of Egypt’s GDP, is one of the sectors that has been most affected by the repercussions of the pandemic. About three million Egyptians working in tourism are affected.

Better than staying at home

One of those tour guides who used to freelance his services to French, English, and American tourists is Ahmed Mahmoud, 34. He had to shift jobs to become a private tutor to high school students.

“I had to come up with alternatives quickly and not lose the language skills I have spent years learning,” says Mahmoud. He benefited from the fact, he says, that the Ministry of Education obliged students to present research papers rather than attend exams at the start of the crisis. At that time, Mahmoud found his skills helped him to sustain a living and provide for his family.

2020 was supposed to be a good year for Egyptian tourism. According to official estimates, the number of tourism revenues increased during the fiscal year 2018/2019 to $12.5bn, compared to $ 9.8bn during the fiscal year 2017/2018, with a growth rate of 28.2%.

While Mahmoud was lucky to find a job, Qenawy, 31, a former cruise ship worker, now a microbus driver, says he lost his job in May 2020, since he was part of the seasonal labour crew that boats hire every year.

“We were laid off and got no compensation. And in a matter of 15 days, hotels sent hundreds home,” he tells The Africa Report.

“At the time [March 2020], everyone across the globe was saying the same thing: ‘stay safe and stay home’,” Qenawy says. “But staying home is for spoiled people. A person has to earn a living.”

Qenawy hopes the cruise ship business comes back, as it often brings hundreds of tourists into the city of all nationalities, who come to visit the temples, museums, buy local products, and go to cafes and restaurants.

Local doctors arriving to test passengers under quarantine because of the new coronavirus, on board the Nile cruise ship MS Asarade, in Luxor, Egypt, Tuesday, March 10, 2020. (Javier Parodi via AP)

A popular trip among foreign tourists and upper-class Egyptian visitors, cruise ships usually follow the route  south from Luxor to Aswan and Nubia, passing by several ancient temples in Edfu and Kom Ombo.

Currently, in Luxor, only a few cruise ships are operating and have already begun hosting a small number of tourist groups from the US and Spain. Others are awaiting inspections to be approved.

Sarah, a female tour guide who speaks Chinese, says that she has been out of work since the crisis and has been forced to go back to freelancing full time as a translator to maintain a decent level of living. “Although tour guides are the facade that the tourist deals with throughout most of their vacation, we are the least cared for faction,” she tells The Africa Report.

Felukas (traditional sailboats) sail around the Nile at Aswan (© Anne-Marie Bissada)

“Any crisis or turmoil in the country is first and foremost felt by the tourism sector. But when things get better, tourism workers are the dynamo that facilitates the flux of tourists,” she adds.

Insufficient governmental support

As the crisis intensified in April 2020, the Egyptian government announced that it would distribute several aid packages to different sectors, including the informal sector, to compensate for the pandemic’s economic devastation. Tourism was on top of these sectors.

The media office of the Tourism Ministry told The Africa Report that the Egyptian government had taken several measures to keep the tourism and hotel industries afloat and support its workers.

READ MORE Will Egypt find its way out of the pandemic?

The ministry added that 332 thousand workers, who are enlisted in the 1,888 touristic establishments across the country, have benefited from at least nine exceptional aid packages. The aid ranged from EGP600 ($38) to EGP1,575, depending on the original salary.

But Sarah, Qenawy, and Ahmed are all freelance tourism workers who, like thousands of others, are not registered with the Ministry of Tourism and the professional syndicates. And thus, they were not eligible to receive the aid.

Qenawy was able to get a two-time EGP500 aid as he had registered as an irregular labourer, but adds it was a negligible sum.

Rafik, a hotel receptionist in one of the three-star hotels in Luxor, received four aid packages of EGP1000. “This managed to help in solving some financial crisis, but as the prices continue to rise, we have to receive this aid monthly so we can feel the difference.”

Changes of labour dynamics

For Megeed who has been working in the bazaar for 30 years, the recent crisis has changed his entire family’s structure. He opened up a small business selling face masks and sanitary gel bottles. His sons used to work in hotels and tourism companies, but they have all been laid off.

One of his sons now drives a tuk-tuk, while the others travelled to the resort area of Sharm El-Sheikh to work as hosts and waiters in hotels there in anticipation of the summer season.

“Instead of training new workers, the government should invest and secure the financial lives of its tourism workers,” he tells The Africa Report.

While Megeed’s family managed to find alternative jobs, others are still struggling. Awad Megahed, originally from the central-southern town of Asyut, was a housekeeper in one of the city’s most prominent hotels, before he was laid off. He has since returned to his hometown with his family.

Local tourism not enough

To compensate for the blow to the sector, the government has embarked on several initiatives to invite Egyptians to spend the winter season in Luxor and Aswan, where the climate is much warmer than in Cairo and the Delta.

Although Megahed has received offers to return to Luxor to work since the push for local tourism has started to pick up, he says it pays half the salary he was making before and provides no accommodation and meals.

We have survived worse, terrorism in the 1990s, the [downing of the] Russian airplane in 2015, and the protests in 2011 and 2013. Ahmed Mohamed, cafe worker

Similarly, several of the syndicates that are well-off and supported by the government have launched a similar campaign to organise several trips to several parts of the country to support local tourism.

But workers in this sector find local tourism to be nothing but a small baby step towards breathing back life into the once vibrant industry.

The packages are very cheap, and hotels might reduce labour and cut wages to profit.

Mossab, originally from Assiut, works as a tour guide.  He says local Egyptian tourists and foreign solo travellers, are often referred to by tourism workers as “El Solo”, and are not “spenders.”

“The Egyptians and El Solo do not like to spend money. Egyptians come to haggle and come with exceptional group offers, while foreign solos are on a tight budget,” Mossab says, adding that local tourists rarely hire tour guides while solo travellers depend on audio recorded tours or books.

“Egyptian customers like to pay the prices they get in Cairo and Delta. They do not understand this is a tourist destination with special prices and [include] high taxes,” says Ahmed Mohamed, who works in a cafe just a few metres from the famed temple.

Mohamed, however, is hopeful that business will soon return.

“We have survived worse, terrorism in the 1990s, the [downing of the] Russian airplane in 2015, and the protests in 2011 and 2013.”

“We just need the government to take care of us till we get back on our feet,” he adds.

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