The pleasure boats sit idle on the Nile, the hotels are empty and the magnificent temples have precious few admirers these days.
Egypt’s post-uprising tourism slump, felt keenly in this southern city that was once the capital of ancient Egypt and stands near the Valley of the Kings, where the boy king Tutankhamun was entombed, was the backdrop to voting Wednesday in the country’s historic presidential election.
Voters – urban and rural, Islamist and liberal – all said they hoped that a new administration would get Luxor’s lifeblood flowing again, though their preferences for the right man to revive the tourism industry varied widely.
From interviews with voters at polling places throughout the city and outlying villages, it appeared that the Islamists were divided, tourism workers favored liberals and the sizable Coptic Christian community trended toward members of Hosni Mubarak’s old regime.
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Luxor residents say the past year’s decline in tourism is the worst since a deadly mass shooting here in 1997. The city took at least five years to recover from that, and residents worry that they could face the same fate now unless Egyptians elect a president who’ll diversify the economy and steer other types of industry to their region.
“Tourism is connected to every family in Luxor, directly or indirectly,” said Mohamed Orabi, 60, an accountant by day and restaurateur by night. “Even a woman raising chickens in the village – the people who buy eggs from her work in tourism, and if they’re not working, they don’t buy.”
Of the 13 candidate names on the ballot, the ones voters mentioned most were the pro-reform Islamist Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh, Ahmed Shafik, who was Mubarak’s last prime minister, and the Arab nationalist Hamdeen Sabahi.
“We just can’t guarantee how the country would look under an Islamist president,” said Souad Ayad, 47, a Copt who was swayed by Shafik’s blatant pitch for a return to the old regime’s predictable, albeit authoritarian, model.
Not one voter McClatchy interviewed mentioned Amr Moussa, the former Arab League chief and presumed front-runner, though he enjoys support from some tourism workers for his image as a beacon of “stability,” Egyptian shorthand for the halcyon days before disruptive protests became commonplace.
Another conspicuously unpopular contender was the Muslim Brotherhood’s Mohammed Morsi. Even many former Brotherhood supporters shied away from him out of fear that an Islamist president would scare off foreign tourists or because they worried that the group was on track to a political monopoly like that of the former ruling party of Mubarak, whose cronies got sweetheart deals here on once-lucrative tourism projects.
“For Parliament, OK, but that’s enough. The Brotherhood shouldn’t control everything,” said Mustafa Mohamed, 25, who runs hot-air balloon tours and voted for Aboul Fotouh. Mohamed said his business had dropped by 60 percent since the uprising against Mubarak.
Luxor residents said they’d seen no evidence to back the interim government’s optimistic projection, as reported by news agencies, that the number of tourists visiting Egypt this year would rebound to pre-uprising figures of 14.5 million, generating about $12.5 billion.
The tourism sector, said to employ one in eight Egyptian workers, was devastated when the rebellion and turbulent transition period forced millions of would-be tourists to cancel their travel plans.
“If tourism isn’t working, there should be other industries, but there isn’t. If there’s no tourism, there’s nothing,” said Mahmoud Abdel Sabour, 41, an out-of-work cruise-ship singer who voted for Sabahi, the Arab nationalist.
Abdel Hamid el Senussi, a Muslim Brotherhood politician who won a seat in Parliament representing Luxor, said the platform of the Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party protected the tourism sector but also would introduce new types of industry to Luxor and other southern cities.
Sitting on a wooden bench among his neighbors in the mostly unpaved village of Madamood, Senussi described the Brotherhood’s vision for Luxor and its environs should Morsi win the presidency: power stations, paper mills, a tomato-paste factory.
The men surrounding him nodded, and chimed in with their own ideas.
“We need a safety net,” Senussi said.
McClatchy special correspondent Mai Shams El-Din contributed to this report.