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, chief executive of the American Chamber of Commerce in Egypt, which represents international companies, 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, not terrorism, Egyptian officials said Tuesday.
Others noted hopefully that tourism had eventually recovered after the 1997 mayhem. "I thought that would be the end of tourism," said Heba Handoussa of the Economic Research Forum in Cairo. "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 hit utility poles and crashed to the ground, injuring passengers. But few visitors had raised safety concerns, tour operators said.
The disaster unfolded in 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 balloon's permit and its pilot's license.
Some in Luxor faulted regulators. Tharwat Agami, 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.
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 the uprising that ousted President Hosni Mubarak, tourism revenue has plummeted to a quarter of its former level, said Ms. Handoussa, the economist. She said government figures, widely believed to understate the malaise, put total 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.
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 past two years, seasonal demand would begin to pick up, and then violence would erupt again, as it did around the U.S. Embassy in Cairo 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."