Egypt's grand plans fall to pieces
Luxor - Egypt had launched festivities, archaeological openings and a new tourism campaign to draw much-needed foreign visitors.
But with many flights to Red Sea resorts grounded amid suspicion that a bomb brought down a Russian airliner, hopes for a recovery were fading.
Egyptians, who depend on the key sector, were keeping a brave face even as some stranded tourists grew angry and tour operators bristled over possible cancellations.
The cause of last Saturday's crash of a Metrojet flight packed with Russian tourists is still under investigation, but British Prime Minister David Cameron said it was “more likely than not” that a bomb brought down the flight. All 224 people on board were killed.
Cameron grounded all British flights to and from the Sinai Peninsula, stranding thousands of tourists, citing “intelligence” information. Germany's Lufthansa Group announced Thursday it was also suspending flights to and from the main Red Sea resort, Sharm el-Sheikh, joining other carriers in halting flights in the aftermath of the disaster.
Descending into the tomb of a pharaonic viceroy opened to the public for the first time in the ancient city of Luxor, Antiquities Minister Mamdouh Eldamaty said: “It is very sad what happened, but we have to wait on the result of the investigation.”
“It was not a terror act, it was an accident,” he added, voicing the official narrative that many Egyptians in tourism-dependent areas like Luxor and Sharm el-Sheikh have clung to.
A night earlier, a gala dinner in Luxor celebrated the anniversary of the 1922 discovery of King Tutankhamun's tomb, with speakers reassuring patrons that Egyptian tourism was poised for growth. As the Cairo Opera's ballet troupe danced across a stage in pharaonic costumes, no mention was made of the crash, the proverbial elephant looming over the four-course meal served in front of the brightly lit Hatshepsut temple.
Security was beefed up at Sharm el-Sheikh's airport, where dozens of additional policemen patrolled halls that earlier in the day were full of stranded travelers, but later emptied out as vacationers sought new accommodations.
Some British tourists clashed with Sharm el-Sheikh hotel staff as tensions rose over delayed flights, a dearth of information from carriers and additional costs tacked on to budget vacation packages.
“Because English people are frustrated and upset, they are taking it out on the staff here, which is not fair,” said Briton Emma Smyth, who said she witnessed one British family object loudly to extra charges.
“They said they should be allowed to stay and with that one man grabbed one of the managers: “ they ripped his shirt, ripped his name-badge off and everything,” she said, adding that despite the delays and lack of information, she and her party were not concerned about their safety.
Paul Modley, a Briton who has travelled to Sharm el-Sheikh seven times in the last nine years, said he understood his government's decision to suspend flights as a precaution, but hopes the resort he stayed at is not too badly affected.
“The staff at the hotel is putting on a very positive face,” he said. “I do not think they will fully appreciate it right now, but if this carries on for some time they will start to see the impact.”
Tourism, which represents 11 percent of Egypt's economy and almost 20 percent of crucial foreign currency revenues, is making a gradual recovery after years of political upheaval since the 2011 popular uprising that deposed longtime autocrat Hosni Mubarak.
However, its future could be grim if it is proven that an Islamic State bomb brought down the Russian passenger plane. In a northern corner of Sinai, the army is fighting Islamic militants who claim allegiance to the Islamic State group, and such a revelation would undermine President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi's assertion that the insurgency is under control and Egypt is safe for tourists.
The sector was looking to re-launch itself on the world stage this week with a multimillion dollar promotional campaign highlighting the country's history and all-year-rounding sun-worshipping opportunities, primarily in and around Sharm el-Sheikh.
At the World Travel Market at London's Excel Exhibition Centre, Egypt's Pharaoh boat-shaped pavilion was one of the biggest and certainly one of the most eye-catching.
Morsi Shehata, general manager of Cairo-based Spring Tours Egypt, which organises beach vacations in Sharm el-Sheikh and has 12 Nile cruise boats, said the British government's decision will undoubtedly hurt his business.
“All this has actually caused a panic among the tourists,” he said, speaking at the tourism fair, which he had hoped would bring a fresh start after the years of upheaval following Mubarak's ouster.
“Of course there are some worries now,” said Shehata, whose company has put up about 65 of its British clients in a Sharm el-Sheikh hotel as they await news on how they can return home.
Meanwhile in Luxor, the show went on, with antiquities authorities opening three 3 000-year-old New Kingdom tombs in hopes of revitalising the Egyptology craze that has weathered wars, colonialism, and even terrorism in the past.
The most significant tomb was that of Huy, Viceroy of Kush under the famed King Tutankhamun. Inside the tomb, wall paintings depict a great festival with Nubian subjects giving tributes of gold and animal pelts to confirm Egypt's then-domination.
Elsewhere in the famed Valley of the Kings, a new exploration was scanning King Tutankhamun's tomb in hopes of discovering a new chamber.
British Egyptologist Nicholas Reeves, in Luxor for the scanning, speculated it could conceal two unexplored doorways, one of which might lead to the tomb of Queen Nefertiti, famous since her bust was discovered in 1912.
Eldamaty, the antiquities minister, said infrared thermography would be used to scan the tomb overnight, with another scan at the end of the month and results released by the end of the year. But he said he doubts Reeves' theory that Nefertiti's tomb lies within.
“We will scan to find what is behind the burial chamber,” he said. “I agree with him that we will find something - but not Nefertiti, maybe another grand lady.”