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LETTERS FROM LUXOR  - July 2012
 
Egypt: A Year on from the Revolution
Wednesday July 4, 2012
 
Caleche Waiting for Tourists in Luxor
Caleche Waiting forTourists in Luxor - Photo by GlobalGirl
 
It is now just over a year since the 25th January Revolution in Egypt. I was here when the protests first broke out and I am now living in Luxor, the former site of the ancient city of Thebes, home to the tomb of King Tutankhamen the best known pharaoh, and commonly referred to as the “world’s greatest open air museum“.
 
I had always wanted to come to Egypt since I can remember and was fascinated by the stories surrounding the discovery of King Tut’s tombs as well as that of Queen Cleopatra. And every time I saw an image of the pyramids - the only remaining ‘ancient wonders of the world’ in a book or on TV I was eager to see them for myself. However I had to wait until my late 30s and 2009 to finally realise my dream of visiting the land that is the cradle of civilisation. I think I actually fell in love with Egypt the moment I first glimpsed the awesome sight of the Giza pyramids lit by a stunning sunset as I looked out from the roof top terrace of my hotel. I fell even deeper a few days later when I visited Luxor in Upper Egypt some 600km south of the capital. The lush green surroundings, the abundance of palm trees and banana plantations and the tranquil and hypnotic Nile were in stark contrast to the mega metropolis that is the dusty and at times chaotic city of Cairo.
 
Here in Luxor the corniche street that runs alongside the banks of the River Nile is lined with caleche horse and carriages that trot by in there dozens giving the tourists a unique view of the life of the locals in down town Luxor. The city has a plethora of temples and tombs adorned with hieroglyphics that are all the more impressive up close and personal, where you can imagine being transported back some 4,000 years to the times of the pharaohs.
 
Fast forward some 14 months and five visits later and my Egyptian boyfriend (now husband) and I had just spent a few days staying at a hotel in down town Cairo in January 2011, a week before the protests kicked off. The view from our hotel balcony was of the Egyptian Museum, the Sadat Statute and Tahrir Square. Back then Tahrir Square, was just a large and busy roundabout we kept driving round as we drove to Giza and other parts of the city. I could hardly have imagined that just a month later Tahrir Square would become synonymous world-wide with the Arab Spring in Egypt and the overthrowing of the Mubarak regime.
 
I had been due to head up to Alexandria to study for a TEFL (Teaching English as a Foreign Language) course but it was cancelled due to the uprising so I stayed put in Luxor where my boyfriend lives. I was here when the ’regime’ switched off the internet service and Al Jezeera too. Fuel began to ran out at all the service stations, vehicles ran out of petrol and my boyfriend was stranded in Hurghada 300km away for over a week. It was very isolating being without the internet and I felt like I was the only tourist left in Luxor. The streets were very quiet, no one was venturing out during the day or night. There was a deadly hush, people seemed a bit nervous but thankfully there were only sporadic incidents in the city and nothing like the scenes we were seeing in other parts of Egypt.
 
Back in the UK my father contacted the Foreign Office and I was told that it was OK for me to stay where I was, so I did. I felt very safe in the West Bank area of Luxor, and had no qualms about remaining in Egypt. I had no intention of fleeing unless I was ordered out. Really you would hardly have known that there was a major political uprising taking place, were it not for the pictures we were seeing 24/7 on the news channels (BBC World and even Nile TV - the state station).
 
For the new few weeks I was glued to the television, wondering when Mubarak was going to step down, thinking surely he couldn’t continue? My boyfriend and I were actually in Hurghada when the news finally came that he had finally gone. Soon we heard the tooting of horns from the cars, people were coming out onto the streets waving the Egyptian flag. We joined in the cavalcade for a short while - there was a sense of euphoria at the witnessing of this historical event.
 
So how has Luxor in particular changed since the momentous events of 25th January? When I first started visiting Luxor the police checks were frequent and irritating. If you drove around the city or headed out to the likes of Edfu, Dendera or Hurghada then you could expect to be stopped at a dozen check points along the way, all asking the driver for his Egyptian ID, car details and baksheesh (cash bribe) to get us through. As a tourist and a female traveling in the car I would also be asked for my passport too. It felt like an infringement of my rights, in the UK I can happily drive without ever getting stopped. But not in Egypt.
 
Post revolution the police and traffic checks and bribes stopped almost immediately as the officials disappeared off the streets. For the first time we were able to drive freely on the roads. For me this was a sign that things were changing, for the better. However, a recent Gallup Poll has actually revealed that most Egyptians now feel much less safe than they did before the ‘Arab Spring’ uprising. The percentage who said they feel safe walking alone at night dropped to 47% from 82% (-35%) since the revolution.
 
Gallup did admit that the uneasiness felt did not necessarily mean there was more crime, and an earlier poll had found that Egyptians sense of safety differed on what television station they watched! The Times newspaper has reported that there are few reliable statistics on how much crime has actually risen in Egypt. I have heard a small number of reports of petty crimes against tourists (muggings and bag theft) but then this happens in most resorts and cities around the world on a daily basis.
 
It does appear though that Egyptians are scared, which isn’t exactly a great message to be sending out to tourists, but as pointed out there is no real evidence to back up any claims that it is more dangerous. There is no rationale for them to be scared apart from the fact that there is perhaps an underlying sense of unease, and I think that stems from a general lack of leadership of the country at the moment.
 
Have things improved since the Revolution? The infrastructure around the city seemed to stop almost overnight after the downfall of the Mubarak. The Old Winter Palace the famous colonial hotel close to Luxor Temple was expanding and large hoarding signs showed how it would look in the future, with a modern pedestrian zone opposite the Nile. All exciting plans which came to a grinding halt post 25th January 2011.
 
Work had also begun on a new Four Seasons hotel on a prime location overlooking the Nile. Glossy marketing hoardings with colourful and stylish pictures showing artist’s impressions of what it would look like finished brightened up the main street leading onto the corniche in Luxor. A large gaping hole the sign that work was about to begin - it stopped almost immediately following the fall of Mubarak and to date has never resumed. The hoardings signs have now grown tatty and dusty, some have even been ripped off. At the moment the big hole remains just a big hole.
 
However, it was reported in the 7th March edition of Construction Week Online that Four Seasons, the Toronto-based hotel group confirmed it was in a “wait-and-see stage” situation given that the “inbound potential into Egypt today is very soft“. The hotel was due to open in 2013, but promisingly the group’s executive vice president of worldwide development added, “In Luxor They’ve undertaken a value engineering exercise to reduce the scope and scale of the project to allow it to move forward…we had gotten close to the end of the design phase, now they’ve said re-look at this - there’s some things we can do that will allow us to save money and reduce the scale and scope of the project to allow it to move forward.”
 
Yet you do get the sense that everyone has deserted Luxor, the tourists, foreign investors, and its own government. Elections have now taken place with the Muslim Party’s Freedom and Justice Party taking the majority of seats and the verdict on the trial of Mubarak is due in June. Presidential elections are due at the end of May, so it will be interesting to see how things might change, hopefully for the better, once there is a new man at the helm.
 
Not surprisingly it is being widely reported that the tourist numbers in Egypt have fallen dramatically since the Revolution, due to the political unrest and lax security situation. Official figures reveal that the number of foreign tourists visiting Egypt in December 2011 dropped 33% compared to same month in 2010 from about 1.28 million to 855,000.
 
Arrivals from Western Europe were the lowest of major tourists followed by those from Eastern Europe. Meanwhile the number of Arab tourists rose by 2.8 per cent from 160,0000 in 2010 to 165,000 in December 2011. While the number of foreign tourists declined, Saudi Arabia accounted for 42.6% of the total number of Arab tourists coming to Egypt during December and January. It seems many Europeans holidaymakers have rejected post revolutionary countries such as Tunisia and Egypt and are now choosing destinations like Turkey.
 
Alternatively you could say that these figures actually paint a reasonably optimistic picture that despite its recent troubles Egypt is still managing to attract vast numbers of worldwide travelers. So can it be confident that there will be a steady increase in the numbers in 2012? The Egyptian tourism office in Mumbai has launched a new campaign “We’re Egypt in India” which is aimed at inviting tourists to experience the new Egypt post revolution. Speaking in the Times of India, the director of Egyptian Tourism Office (ETA) Adel El Mary, said “We want our travelers to know that Egypt is now safe and secure for everyone. For Egypt, Asia especially India - is one of the most prime tourism markets and we are always looking for opportunities to attract tourists and corporate to our country.” ETA has doubled the tourism budget for India to $1 million and flight frequencies have increased to five flights a week from India.
 
The Egyptian Times, reported Mohamed Ibrahim, Minister of Antiquities, admitting that his ministry had been hard hit in the wake of the revolution. He explained how the tourism sector must be supported, whether it be taxi drivers or tourism ministry officials, they must work together to encourage tourists back to Egypt. General Abdel-Rehim Hassan, the head of tourism police, added that peace and security are two basic elements for boosting tourism. “There are plans to protect tourism. In the meantime, none of the tourism police has been exposed to violence since the revolutions. But there have been criminal incidents which could derail tourism, the recent kidnappings in Sinai and closures of the navigation line between Luxor and Aswan.”
 
Unfortunately according to Egypt.com. some travel operators from Hurghada are now threatening to suspend daily flights to Luxor because of recurring incidents of harassment by stall traders at some of the historical sites. There have been reports of a woman robbed at Hatshepsut Temple and claims that vendors are directing indecent insults and curses at the tourists when they refuse to buy their goods. Egypt, Cairo and Luxor do have a bad reputation for its ‘hassle’ culture. I have experienced this in several other countries such as India and Bali, so it’s not confined to Egypt, none the less it can be very irritating and annoying. A polite la shukran (no thanks) usually gets rid of them, if not then use imshee (go away) that should do the trick!
 
The government though must take these threats seriously and do something about the stall-holders by the temples. It is essential that tourists have a good experience when they visit the Luxor, word of mouth and recommendation is as good a form of advertising and marketing as any. Negative feedback from travelers who have been robbed or insulted will only add to the myriad of reasons people already have for not choosing to come here.
 
Of course no matter what is written by the media, life still does goes on here in Luxor, the men farm their fields, the sugarcane is still cut down and transported to the factories to be processed, the minibuses stream along the streets taking men and women to their places of work, school and home. The fruit and vegetables stalls are full, the men still sit at the corner café drinking a coffee or shisha and the young adults enjoying walking with their friends window shopping in an evening.
 
It does though feel like life Luxor has been on hold for a year, it’s static, there has been little progression. The large café area on the West Bank area near the ferry terminal which was only built a couple of years ago, is now empty with plants and bushes all overgrown. No one seems to care that it now looks like an eyesore when once it was a lively and vibrant meeting place.
 
The tourist bazaar shops remain open, with shelves filled with the usual tourist tat of pyramid shaped paper weights, shisha water pipes, and toy camel, but no-one is buying. Some of the larger establishments in Luxor like the well known Philippe Jewellers shut up shop a long time ago when the tourists disappeared and have not re-opened. New roads and bridges have until now been left half built and there are still apartment and business blocks that remain unfinished. In the last few weeks though I am beginning to see some signs of life and a few construction projects have restarted.
 
Has anything improved? Well not much! There are fuel shortages nearly every other day, with long queues of buses, coaches and tractors. There have also been power cuts and water shortages where households have been left without running water for up to eight hours. Unemployment and job opportunities for the young people remains scarce. In a USA Today article Oren Dorell wrote that unemployment in Egypt had risen by a third, from 9% to 12.2% in the past year, and revenue from tourism had dropped by 80%. There was almost no foreign investment in the past year and its foreign currency reserves dropped from $36 billion before the revolution to $16.35 at the end of January. There is also talk of a devaluation of its currency.
 
Hassan Abdallah works as a chef on a dehabayia (the traditional wooden sailing boats) which sail from Luxor to Aswan. This is an expensive way to cruise the Nile and can cost as much as £17,000 to hire out. Most of the boats are now moored by the side of the river - business is very slow. What was once a lucrative and well paid job for Hassan now earns him money only once every six months if that. He is though resigned to the current situation and said: “The people protesting in Cairo wanted things to change quickly, but it will take time. It will be slow maybe two or three years more for the country to become better again.” In the meantime Yasser Ahmed has had to return to no job and his family home in Luxor from Hurghada where he worked in a tourist bazaar in the grounds of a large hotel complex because of the dramatic fall in number of Russian tourists, the largest group of visitors to the red sea resort.
 
More positively a report by Tom Pfeiffer of Reuters revealed that Egypt’s Telecom sector was seeing businesses investing again. He pointed out that perhaps things are beginning to move in the right direction. Foreign investment will begin again once there are signs of stability in the country. Days later he wrote that Egypt’s stock market climbed to its highest level since last July signaling that after a year of turmoil, prospects at long last may be approving for the Egyptian economy.
 
Luxor has bounced back from disaster before. In 1997 the temple of Hatshepsut was the scene of a horrendous massacre when Islamist fundamentalists killed over 50 western tourists, surely a far worst atrocity than the overthrowing of a dictator? It took some years to recover from that terrible event but tourists did return, along with stricter security measures at all historical sites. Apart from the spate of kidnappings in the Sinai peninsula by protesting Bedouins there have been no attacks on tourists for 15 years.
 
The unfortunate fall out from the people’s fight for democracy and freedom has been a dramatic decline in the lifeblood for many that is the tourism industry. It was perhaps inevitable, the country is politically unstable and potential visitors feel the country’s lax security makes it unsafe, however misplaced that perception might be
 
It also doesn’t help when you regularly hear negative stories about Egypt. From the scare mongering reports suggesting that Egypt is about to become a strict Islamic state like Iran or Saudi Arabia or the views on the newly political empowered Muslim Brotherhood’s and its Freedom and Justice Party, which in the words of USA Today is ‘the Islamic organisation that supports religious law and opposes Western influence’.
 
The BBC reported from Luxor in March 2012 about a restaurant that had stopped selling alcohol because the owner was scared of the ‘men in beards’, but did nothing to find out the real reason was financial and due to a decline in sales and lack of customers. The reporter then interviewed a woman from the extreme Salafist Al Nour party who was wearing a niqab, the full face veil.
 
These are all negative and skewed images of Luxor. On any given day in down town Luxor I will see only a handful of women in public with the full veil out of hundreds of women who wear the normal traditional hijib head scarf. There are numerous hotels, restaurants and cafes that do serve alcohol in public and all the talk of a ban on bikinis and introducing same sex beaches is currently just hearsay and the view point assigned only to the salafists rather than the vast majority of the Egyptians themselves.
 
There is no denying that other events such as the terrible riot in Port Said that killed 74 people at a football match in January and the trial of the 43 pro democracy activists (including 16 Americans) accused of receiving illegal foreign funds does nothing to portray a country where freedom and security has improved since the regime was overthrown. In fact in the words of David J Kramer, president of Freedom House, one of the accused NGO's (Non Government Organisation) perhaps it has ’gotten worse..’?
 
On a slightly more positive note, Luxor recently hosting the International Luxor Africa Film Festival, putting the city firmly on a global level and drawing thongs of new visitors. The city will also be celebrating the inauguration of the ancient sphinx-lined road at end of spring 2012. The sphinx-lined road is one of the most important religious and archaeological sites in Luxor and the oldest religious in the world. This is one of the longest routes linking the two ancient Egyptian temples of Luxor and Karnak. The road is 2.7 m long and 76 metres wide. Small steps all in the right direction to help boost the beleaguered city.
 
Following the revolution in the land of the Pharaoh, things in Luxor remain much as they were a year ago. The hypnotic Nile still flows north, King Tut’s tomb is still welcoming visitors, the corniche is full of caleche carriages. The Egyptian pound is dropping by the day you can get almost 10 to a £1. Food and drink is cheap (for westerners), you can rely on the weather - the sun shines almost everyday. It has some of the most remarkable temples and tombs anywhere in the world and can rightly call itself the world’s greatest ‘open air museum’. So why are the tourists staying away? In fact, although the decline in visitors is of course bad news for the local economy it is actually a benefit to those of you who might be thinking of coming here as you can have the tombs and temples practically to yourself, something not possible a couple of years ago.
 
Reflecting back to those days in January and early February of last year, the war cry booming out from Tahrir Square to Mubarak and his regime was imshi imshi (Go Away). But this wasn’t directed at the tourists. There was a real sense of optimism at Tahrir and a hope for a new beginning. That hasn’t materialised yet and only time will tell. I hope though that the tourists, and foreign investors don’t “wait and see” and turn their backs on Egypt and Luxor for long. Egypt still has much to offer and remains one of the most unforgettable travel destinations in the world.
 
 
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