Rare sparse groups wander between the colonnades of the Karnak temple. In Luxor, this pharaonic religious complex spread over nearly two km2 represents a must visit. “What a privilege to be almost alone” enthuses Erwan Valazza, a 29-year-old Swiss musician. “This is the opportunity to discover this country in a quieter moment”, adds his partner, Cora Aguirre, a 28-year-old psychologist.
Since the start of the coronavirus pandemic a year ago, tourism has stalled in the Nile Valley. The closure of Egyptian borders, from March to June 2020, put a stop to the improvement in this sector, which contributes nearly 15% of the country’s GDP. The number of foreign travelers thus fell, between 2019 and 2020, from 13 million to 3.3 million.
“All life is at a standstill”
Their absence is particularly felt in Luxor. Cradle of mass tourism at the end of the 19th century, shaped by the tour operator Thomas Cook for the European bourgeoisie who dreamed of the Orient (1), it is until today the main activity of this museum city and a source income for the majority of households.
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“All life is at a standstill”, laments Tarek Salem, a guide in the business for eleven years. “It’s worse than during the lean years after the revolution” of 2011, sighs this 33-year-old father who has worked barely two weeks in a year.
For this French-speaking clientele mainly from France, the ban on travel outside the European Union, decreed on the eve of the February school holidays, had the effect of “Shock”. “I expected a lot of families, I had work for three weeks non-stop”, ruminates on Tarek Salem.
Since the reopening of airlines to Egypt in July 2020, the authorities have been trying to get tourists to return by using their wallets. Thus, visas are free for arrivals at the resorts of the Red Sea, Luxor and Aswan.
Archaeological discoveries on show
Another strategy is to sharpen the curiosity of potential visitors by keeping them spellbound with cascading archaeological discoveries. In September, November and January, dozens of sarcophagi unearthed in the necropolis of Saqqarah, south of Cairo, provided this show staged by the Ministry of Antiquities and Tourism.
“The public adores mummies, they have the power to capture the attention of the whole world” supports Zahi Hawass, former minister and media Egyptologist with Indiana Jones look.
“The situation is chaotic”
A formula whose effects are however long awaited in Luxor. “The situation is chaotic”, thundered at the end of January in the hemicycle the deputy of this governorate hit by massive unemployment. In this season, Hotel El Gezira, located on the west bank of the Nile, is usually full. But currently, only 15% of rooms are occupied, despite prices halved.
“We don’t make any profit, we just try to stay afloat”, worries the manager of this establishment, Mohamed El Hady, sitting in a living room with kitsch furniture. Its 45 employees work part-time and only receive half of their salary. A lesser evil when many tourism professionals were dismissed overnight.
Return to live with his parents
This is what happened in March 2020 to Ahmed Mohamed, as well as to the sixty employees of Champollion. Receptionist for eight years on this cruise ship which linked Luxor and Aswan, he has lived for almost a year without income. “I borrow from friends”, admits this young married of 30 years who did not see the color of the aid in cash announced by the State.
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The steel juggernaut that employed him remains moored alongside five other ferries. Ahmed Mohamed was forced to return to live with his parents. In his village, Bairat, an agricultural village of 15,000 inhabitants near Luxor, he estimates that around a hundred young men have already left to seek work on construction sites in Cairo. He too is thinking of joining them.