Stringent measures in Luxor

Sara Mohamed, Wednesday 18 Mar 2020

Egypt is taking strict measures to fight the spread of the new coronavirus by testing at Luxor hotels and on Nile cruises and suspending international flights until the end of March

Tourists at the Karnak Temple in Luxor

Egyptian Prime Minister Mostafa Madbouly announced on Monday that Egypt would suspend international flights to and from the country from 19 to 31 March at all airports nationwide as part of the country’s stringent measures to curb the spread of the Covid-19 coronavirus.

“The decision taken by the government to fight the virus has economic repercussions, but the state’s priority is to protect citizens,” Madbouly said at a press conference held at the cabinet office last Monday.

He added that all the hotels and tourist attractions in the country would be sterilised during the two weeks of international flights suspension.

The government has already been taking stringent measures to curb the spread of Covid-19 since reports emerged that passengers on a Nile cruise had been infected with the virus two weeks ago. Many Egyptians and tourists were initially terrified by the news, but tourism to Luxor soon started to recover after the Ministry of Health took immediate and stringent measures.

These have included testing individuals for infection and disinfecting all land and river hotels. Infrared devices have been supplied to monitor temperatures, on-site clinics opened, and regular inspections are being carried out.

Today, tourism will draw to a temporary halt. Tourists who continued to safely enjoy their trip to Luxor after the outbreak of the virus have already left or are now due to leave. It is definitely not good news for many, but there is a general sense of gratitude that the government is giving priority to citizens’ health and that the temporary suspension of flights will allow for even more measures to be taken to sterilise tourist sites, hotels and cruises in preparation for future trips when the suspension is over.

Many feel grateful that Luxor has already had a good season this year and that the season was ending anyway. The tourism season in Luxor normally starts in October and ends in April due to the city’s high temperatures, and many of those interviewed by Al-Ahram Weekly said this season had already seen a boom in the number of visitors despite global concerns over the new coronavirus.

The Weekly takes a look at the tourism scene in Luxor after the outbreak and before the suspension of international flights.

PREVENTATIVE MEASURES BY AIRLINES: Magdi Sadek, a member of the Travel Agencies Chamber of Commerce, said that “before the cases of the coronavirus, tourism to Luxor was flourishing. The outbreak resulted in 20 per cent cancellations, but tourism remained robust.”

He expected the crisis to end soon, especially after the ministry of health took preventative steps to end the outbreak and suspend trips for two weeks.

But even before the flight suspension, the government had demanded that airlines be proactive in disinfecting airplanes and inspecting them after every flight. Plastic covers had been used on seats and food trays had been changed after every meal in order to stop this communicable disease.

 “Hotels must place hand sanitisers everywhere in rooms, entrance and exits, and restaurants, and they must use increased disinfection when trips are back to normal,” Sadek said, adding that the government had already done its best to prevent tourism from being impacted in order not to affect the economy over the past weeks.

MASKS AND SANITISERS: Hatem Al-Azab, the owner of a tourism agency in Luxor, said that tourism in the city had been impacted very quickly, resulting in 85 per cent cancellations due to rumours about Covid-19. The cancellations had come from around the world, including the US, the UK, Germany, Italy, Spain, Japan, South Africa, China, India and Belgium, he said.

“But the fear among Egyptians and foreigners after the reported cases in Luxor had just started to subside before the suspension was announced, especially after all Nile cruises and hotels were disinfected and inspected,” he said.

“They started to return to normal after bookings had dropped from 90 per cent occupancy rates,” Al-Azab said, adding that tourism agencies were providing masks and sanitisers for tourists.

DISINFECTING HOTELS: Ramadan Haggagi, the manager of a river hotel and member of the General Assembly of the Chamber of Hotel Establishments, said occupancy rates remained at 100 per cent despite the Covid-19 rumours. His guests were Germans and Britons, he said.

Haggagi said the Ministry of Health had led efforts to disinfect all land and river hotels, including rooms, kitchens, and restaurants. He added that this tourism season, which ends in April, had also been better than last year.

Haggagi welcomed the government decision to suspend trips to and from Egypt as “a necessary precautional measure”.

“It will definitely give the government more time to apply stringent measures to curb the disease, which will boost our international image as a country that is taking the health of its people and tourists seriously,” Haggagi said, adding that more tourists would feel safe to come again to Egypt.

Not that those working in tourism will not have losses. “It’s an international problem, and we all have to pay a price,” he said. “But I hope that the government will support those working in tourism because it is a heavily employing sector.”

Haggagi suggested that the government should reduce the taxes and tariffs imposed on those working in tourism to help them overcome their losses and pay employees.

NINETY PER CENT OCCUPANCY RATES: Mohamed Othman, deputy chairman of the Chamber of Upper Egypt Tourism Companies and director of the Committee on Cultural Tourism in Luxor and Aswan, said 2019 had been the region’s best year since 2010.

 2020 was expected to be even better, “especially after tourism rates climbed during January and February and hotel occupancy ranged between 80 and 95 per cent. However, forecasts dropped after the coronavirus outbreak.”

CULTURAL TOURISTS FROM FIVE COUNTRIES: “Tourism revenues in 2019 were more than $19 billion, and we rely on five key countries for cultural tourism, Germany, the UK, France, Italy and Spain,” Othman said.

“We also have new markets in Asia, including China, India, Japan and South Korea.” Some 230,000 Chinese tourists had visited Luxor, constituting 18 per cent of visitors, while Britons had amounted to 40 per cent of visitors, he said.

Othman explained that the tourism spend per night in recent years was between $50-$60, but in 2019 it had almost doubled to $90-$100 per night, and there was a summer tourism season to Luxor mainly from Spain. He added that the Covid-19 outbreak was a transient event, and most cancelled bookings had been postponed to August or September until the outbreak subsides.

“Luxor will still be the tourist destination for many foreigners after the suspension ends,” he said, adding that the government had been very transparent about the outbreak, with a World Health Organisation (WHO) report saying that Egypt was one of the top countries in dealing with the virus and had among the lowest number of cases.

CHECKING HOTEL GUESTS: Othman said the government had provided all hotels with devices to test guests, as well as establish on-site clinics.

Meanwhile, the Ministry of Health was carrying out routine inspections of hotels before the arrival of tourist groups, which usually stay an average of four days. There were also stringent cleaning and disinfecting measures, and any hotel that did not comply would be shut down.

Adel Al-Shazli, the manager of a land hotel, said tourism to Luxor had returned to its normal pace last week after the coronavirus outbreak, and four flights from Europe had recently arrived at Luxor airport. But, of course, they all had to leave over the past few days due to government’s decision to suspend flights last Monday. “The decision to suspend international flights was a necessary precaution to curb the disease and protect people’s health — which should always be a priority,” he said. “But there is, no doubt, that it will affect the tourism sector negatively.”

According to Al-Shazli, things were already under control even before flights were suspended. “All Egyptians and foreigners at land and river hotels had tested negative for the coronavirus,” he insisted. “Egypt is a unique tourist destination that is receiving all nationalities, and all preventative measures have been taken at hotels as best we can. The first line of defence are ports of entry, with hotels being the last frontier.”

Al-Shazli said the preventative medicine division at the ministry of health had taken samples from hotel guests and staff in Luxor and sent them to central laboratories in Cairo for testing. All the samples had tested negative. “Hotels were also disinfected, and [infrared] sensors were installed to check guests as they arrive and report any anomalies,” he said.

“Altogether, it is difficult to monitor the impact of Covid-19 on tourism in Egypt right now, but I believe there must be a negative impact not only locally but also worldwide. Nonetheless, Egypt is one of the few countries that has been receiving tourists until early this week before the government decided to stop all foreign flights,” he said.

 Compared to last year, occupancy rates this season were robust, especially domestic tourism, as well as from Asia, especially China. Occupancy rates had reached 80 per cent before the outbreak, Al-Shazli said.

SAILBOATS NOT AS POPULAR: Rayyes [captain] Hagag Mahmoud Sayed, chairman of the Committee for Sailboat Workers and River Transportation in Luxor, said that sailboats were a popular excursion before the coronavirus outbreak but had dropped by 80 per cent since and are expected to have a further slump with the suspension of foreign flights.

He said the real season for sailboats was between October and July, and rates usually drop by 50 per cent during the summer when tourist agencies focus on Sharm El-Sheikh and Hurghada since the weather is too hot in Luxor.

Most sailboat trips are between three and four hours long, beginning in the afternoon until sunset, when guests enjoy the green environment, calm and fresh air, and visit Banana Island, he said. “We are famous for our hospitality and good manners, which reflect our image in the world and leave a positive impression with tourists,” he added.

PRICE CUTS AT HISTORICAL SITES: A senior researcher at the Ministry of Antiquities said that this had been a moderate tourism season compared to the past, explaining that the drop in visitors was due to a 20 per cent spike in ticket prices at antiquities sites and many bookings had been cancelled after the Covid-19 outbreak.

The price of six-day Nile cruises between Luxor and Aswan had risen from LE800 to LE1,200 per night. The most popular historic sites were the West Bank, the East Bank, the Valley of the Kings and Valley of the Queens, Hatshepsut’s Temple, the Karnak Temple and the Luxor Temple, he said.

The antiquities official said the Supreme Council for Antiquities (SCA) had agreed to discount ticket prices at sites and museums in Qena, Luxor, and Aswan for non-Egyptians to the price of non-Egyptian students during June, July, and August of 2020 and 2021 to encourage cultural tourism during the summer season.

Minister of Tourism and Antiquities Khaled El-Enany had issued a decision to reduce the prices of the complete tickets during the summer months. Instead of a tourist paying $200 for a single ticket to visit all the sites, he or she would now pay $100 to enter all the archaeological areas, except the tombs of Tutankhamun and Nefertari as they had their own ticketing.

SILVER AND PHARAONIC SOUVENIRS MOST POPULAR: Mohamed Amin, the owner of a silver shop in Luxor, said sales were moderate compared to last season and had been slightly impacted by the coronavirus outbreak.

Amin said tourists liked to buy silver, as well as Pharaonic souvenirs made in Egypt.

He is facing a total halt in sales now that all the tourists have left and the market is dead. He feels disappointed, of course, but who isn’t? “It’s a global issue,” he said, adding that he has nothing in hand but to hope that this crisis would be over soon.

TOURISM GUIDES TAKE A HIT: Milad Shahid, a tourist guide, said that since February tourism had slowed down due to the Covid-19 outbreak and there had been cancellations since the start of March until May.

Today, Shahid will have to remain without work until flights are back to normal, but he hopes tourism will pick up again soon.

“Before the outbreak, everything was going well,” Shahid said. “Chinese nationals were a key tourist contingent to Egypt, and the decline in tourists since has impacted tourism guides. The tourists mainly come from China, Germany, France, Italy, the US, Canada and Australia.”

He explained that tourism companies contract guides for the year at the beginning of the tourism season, and their work varies depending on the actual number of visitors.

Tourism aside, Luxor has cancelled all large gatherings and disinfected the governorate’s headquarters and other offices across the province, provided sanitisers, and reminded staff about disinfective and preventative measures. The local government has also put up posters and advisories in public places and distributed them to its offices, schools and universities.

It is also closely communicating with the Ministry of Health through a 24-hour task force that will immediately report any Covid-19 infections and new preventative measures.

Governorate mosques will be disinfected before and after Friday prayers, while larger mosques with bigger congregations will be disinfected after every prayer. The governorate is also coordinating with church officials to ensure daily disinfection, while regularly inspecting schools and hospitals to ensure cleanliness, hygiene, preventative and awareness measures.

The Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities said in a statement that “in order to take all preventative measures against the coronavirus, the head of the Chamber of Hotel Facilities has announced the purchase of 1,000 infrared devices for land and river hotels to check guests and staff.” The statement continued that a company specialising in food health and safety had been contracted, according to international standards.

Only a few weeks before the suspension of flights, Mohamed Abdel-Kader Khairi, Luxor’s deputy governor, had toured the Karnak and Luxor Temples and a handful of river hotels accompanied by Ghada Shalabi, deputy tourism minister, and Abdel-Fattah Al-Assi, undersecretary at the Tourism Ministry in charge of tourism and hotel facilities.

The officials had met with tourists and staff, praising the large number of visitors to Luxor from around the world, before they all had to leave this week. They also talked to tourists, who said Egypt was an important tourism destination and that they were enjoying the sites and fabulous weather, adding that they wished to visit Egypt again in the future.

Shalabi said Egypt was one of the first countries to train doctors in medical quarantine and that it had upgraded laboratories at seaports and airports to detect any outbreaks and prevent them from infecting the general population. “We had strict measures in place until we ascertained visitors were not infected so they could enjoy their visit,” she said.

Khairi said the governorate’s health department had taken all the necessary measures to prepare for any epidemic, as well as preventative measures in all its offices using advisories and posters from the Ministry of Health and the WHO. Minister of Health and Population Hala Zayed said all Nile vessels and hotels in Luxor were safe and were following all the necessary preventative measures under the ministry’s plan to address Covid-19.

Zayed was visiting a Nile cruiser along with El-Enany, Minister of Civil Aviation Mohamed Manar, and Luxor Governor Mustafa Alham to follow up on government plans against the coronavirus.

Zayed reviewed the measures taken on the vessel and said they must continue to apply them, especially by staff to avoid infectious diseases. She said there was no need for an over-reaction over the identified Covid-19 cases in Luxor, since the Nile cruise those affected had been on was an isolated hotspot.

Not all the cases had symptoms, but thanks to the diligent testing regimen in Egypt they had been identified and were in a stable condition receiving medical attention at the Quarantine Hospital in Egypt. She added that the vessel had been disinfected and sterilised.

Zayed urged all workers in the tourism sector to thoroughly and regularly wash their hands. Anyone who develops a temperature and has symptoms should directly go to the nearest hospital for testing.

El-Enany said tourism in Luxor had been normal before flights were stopped and there were no travel restrictions or bans to or in Egypt. He said a meeting of Luxor hotel managers and the Chambers of Tourism and Hotels would review and report on the application of preventative measures approved by the WHO to prevent virus infections, particularly Covid-19, and how to handle any suspected infections.

Manar said that according to Egypt’s recent prevention plan, all airports had been inspected and closely communicated with the central operations room to monitor passenger movements around the clock and ensure the implementation of preventative measures in coordination with the relevant bodies until the last trips that took off or arrived today.

Before trips were suspended, officials insisted that compulsory medical tests had been conducted at fully equipped airport quarantine facilities on everyone coming from countries where there was a coronavirus outbreak.

Recent flight suspensions have already resulted in financial losses for Egyptian airlines exceeding LE2.25 billion, according to Madbouli’s statement on Monday. Those working in the field of tourism will also have to face losses and are hoping the government will reduce taxes in support. But the consensus remains that protecting people’s lives should always come first.

*A version of this article appears in print in the  19 March, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly


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