Egyptian Balloon Explosion Kills at Least 19 Tourists at Luxor

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CAIRO -- The explosion of a hot-air balloon over the ancient temples at Luxor killed at least 19 sightseers Tuesday, delivering a grim blow to Egypt's critical tourism business just as it had begun to show signs of recovery from the shock of the revolution two years ago.

All of those killed were tourists, including nine Chinese from Hong Kong, four Japanese, two French, two Britons, a Hungarian and an Egyptian, Health Ministry officials said. The balloon's pilot and a British passenger survived by jumping from the balloon's basket. But the surviving passenger's wife, also British, died in the blaze.

"It is just another nail in tourism's coffin," Hisham A. Fahmy, the chief executive of the American Chamber of Commerce in Egypt, which represents international companies here, said of the crash. "They were probably the only tourists in Luxor as it was."

Even Egyptians trying to minimize the disaster's potential effect on the tourist business compared it to the 1997 massacre of 62 people, 58 of them tourists, at one of Luxor's temples by a group of Islamist militants. At least this was an accident and not terrorism, Egyptian officials said Tuesday. Others noted hopefully that tourism had eventually recovered after 1997.

"I thought that would be the end of tourism," said Heba Handoussa of the Economic Research Forum here. "But to my surprise, the next year it was back. People seem to take it in stride."

The tombs and temples of Luxor and the nearby Valley of the Kings are among Egypt's premier attractions, and hot-air balloon rides over the valley at dawn are a staple of the local tourist trade. In 2008 and 2009, balloons collided with utility poles and crashed to the ground, injuring passengers. But few visitors had raised safety concerns, tour operators said.

The disaster unfolded in just minutes, shortly after 7 a.m., as the balloon was preparing to land in a field of sugar cane. The pilot was pulling a rope to stabilize the balloon when a gas hose ripped and a fire started, security officials said.

The pilot and the passenger who survived quickly escaped over the side of the basket, risking a 30-foot fall. Then escaping gas or hot air from the fire evidently sent the balloon soaring back skyward. Some reports said it had climbed as high as 1,000 feet before a gas cylinder exploded and it burst into flames.

State media reported that some of the dead had been "cremated" in the fireball. The Health Ministry said it would use DNA testing to identify the remains.

The ministers of aviation and tourism said they were traveling to Luxor. Officials started investigations into the crash as well as an examination of the permit for the balloon and the license for its pilot.

Some in Luxor faulted regulators. Tharwat Agami, the chairman of the Luxor tourist industry trade group, accused the aviation ministry of renewing licenses for the balloon operator and others despite their failures to meet safety requirements. Like other forms of law enforcement, balloon regulation and inspection have deteriorated sharply since the revolution, he told the state newspaper Al Ahram.

"As if tourism can take any more!" Mr. Agami said, according to the newspaper. "Where is the inspection of each balloon before takeoff by civil aviation?"

Tourism typically accounted for about 11 percent of Egypt's gross domestic product before the revolution, economists say. More important, tourism is Egypt's second-largest source of hard currency, after remittances sent home by Egyptians working abroad. It helps reduce the trade imbalance, supporting the sagging value of the Egyptian pound.

But in the two years of unrest since President Hosni Mubarak was ousted, tourism revenue has plummeted to just a quarter of its former level, said Ms. Handoussa, the economist.

She said government figures, widely believed to understate the malaise, put unemployment at 14 percent, up from 8 percent before the revolt, while the number of Egyptians officially considered to be living in poverty has risen to 25 percent from 20 percent.

Two major European tour operators, TUI of Germany and Thomas Cook of Britain, said around the beginning of this year that they saw signs of recovery in the demand for vacations to North Africa, including Tunisia and Egypt. Tour operators and travel agents say the Red Sea beach resorts, farther from the unrest in Cairo, have suffered far less than other destinations.

But then at the end of January, vandals in Cairo capitalized on the chaos surrounding a street protest to loot and ransack the lobby of the historic Semiramis InterContinental Hotel. It was the first time since Mr. Mubarak's exit that the unrest had so directly affected a tourist institution. Now the balloon accident may add new concerns about safety to the continuing fears of political instability.

Mina Agnos, a vice president of Travelive, a high-end tour operator based in Athens and Montclair, N.J., said it had stopped marketing trips to Egypt. Each fall in the last two years, seasonal demand would pick up, and then violence would erupt again, as it did around the American Embassy here last September over an online video mocking Islam.

"Something would happen," she said. "We found that a lot of people who were thinking of going to Egypt ended up going other places."

Mayy El Sheikh contributed reporting.

world

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.


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