The detection of dozens of coronavirus cases aboard a Nile cruise ship in southern Egypt drove some crew members on other ships to resign for fear of exposure to the rapidly spreading virus, tourism workers said.
Egypt said on Saturday a total of 45 people on board the A-Sara in Luxor had tested positive for the new coronavirus, making the ship the site of the biggest cluster of cases so far in Egypt. The health ministry said the source of infection was a Taiwanese-American woman who had been on the same ship in January.
The ship had been towed to a site some 20 kilometres away from the city of Luxor and placed under quarantine.
"Everything is under control," Alaa, a staff member on the ship told Ahram Online on Sunday, while declining to elaborate or give any more details. A receptionist on the ship contacted by Ahram Online was also tight-lipped about the situation, saying that only health ministry officials can now comment on the matter.
The country late on Sunday announced its first coronavirus fatality, a 60-year-old German tourist who had visited Luxor before he died in a hospital in the Red Sea resort city of Hurghada.
The recent surge in cases and the isolation of those affected has caused panic among staff members aboard other cruise ships that operate on the popular route between the touristic hubs of Luxor and Aswan.
"[Some] staff members want to leave [their job] and there are resignations. They are hearing what's happening and they fear for themselves and their families," said the director of another Nile cruise ship operated by the same company as the quarantined vessel.
"We have seen at least five or six of our colleagues on neighbouring cruises resigning," the manager, who requested to remain anonymous, told Ahram Online. "Because there are foreigners [aboard], people are afraid to be infected."
He claimed the fear is overplayed in the Upper Egyptian city, where awareness is inadequate.
Health authorities tested all staff and guests on the ship for the virus, he said.
Ahmed Kamel, a receptionist on another cruise ship in Luxor, said two crew members had resigned over the past few days, "because they were afraid to get infected."
Until Friday, Egypt had detected just three cases of the flu-like virus in the country, including one Egyptian who Health Minister Hala Zayed said on Saturday was in "critical condition."
Egyptian officials said 11 suspected cases among the 45 on the Luxor ship, who were all asymptomatic, later tested negative, and that all foreigners testing negative can leave the country one day after test results.
Business as usual
Sources on other Nile cruisers say business has so far been unaffected.
The director of a cruise operated by Germany's Steigenberger said he heard about resignations but not on his operator's 22 affiliated cruises.
"There is panic to a great extent; we cannot deny that. Some of [our] staff were considering resignation but we dissuaded them," said Ibrahim Kamal, director of the Steigenberger Minerva.
To prevent infection, the ship has introduced stricter public health measures, including frequent sterilisation of the facility and efforts around hand hygiene and respiratory etiquette.
His cruise is one of three other ships contacted by Ahram Online who said their business has so far not been disrupted by the jump in new cases. They say their occupancy rate is near full and no cancellations have been made for upcoming trips.
Egypt is heavily dependent on tourism, a main source of hard currency, and the winter months are peak season in the ancient cities of Luxor and Aswan.
The country’s tourism industry has recently been showing signs of recovery from a slowdown in the wake of years of political instability.
Mostafa Sayed, travel manager at Cairo-based tourist firm Nile Cruisers, which runs Nile trips to Luxor, said that about 25 percent of trips booked to the popular winter destination had been cancelled over the past few days.
A temporary suspension of all flights to Egypt from Kuwait and Oman, announced on Saturday, has also hurt the company's bookings from the Gulf countries, Sayed said.
Egypt’s ministers of health, tourism, and civil aviation on Sunday travelled to Luxor to check quarantine measures at the city's airport and toured archaeological sites, hotels and cruise ships in an attempt to reassure visitors that the city is safe.
“Those working in tourism and their families, I’m telling you we’re monitoring [things] closely and you are safe with us, and together we can get through this time,” Zayed told reporters in Luxor, while urging people to be “cautious about reactions and don’t exaggerate.”
“You saw the numbers, the buses and the queues outside…tourism is very stable in Luxor,” Khaled El-Enany, the tourism and antiquities minister, said.