Magazine article The Middle East

Luxor Gets a Facelift: Maria Golia Reports from Luxor on the City's Attempt to Accommodate a Growing Number of Tourists without Sacrificing the Future of the Ancient Monuments That Attract Them to the Area

Magazine article The Middle East

Luxor Gets a Facelift: Maria Golia Reports from Luxor on the City's Attempt to Accommodate a Growing Number of Tourists without Sacrificing the Future of the Ancient Monuments That Attract Them to the Area

Article excerpt

LIKE ANXIOUS HOSTS everywhere, the Egyptian authorities are apt to set certain needs aside in order to better serve their guests. Affordable housing is scarce on the ground for the average Egyptian, but there are plenty of five-star hotels and seaside resorts; second and third class trains handle the greatest amount of daily traffic, but the first class ones, used by tourists, are those most likely to be maintained and upgraded.

Tourism is one of Egypt's main foreign currency generators, a fact that influences developmental priorities on a national scale. A total of over 9m tourists in 2006/2007 yielded revenues in excess of $8bn. This year, the country is hoping for 10m visitors, and the Ministry of Tourism's goal is to welcome some 16m annually by 2014.

Compared to European countries like Spain, expecting 60m tourists this year, and France, which received 78m in 2006, Egypt still lags behind the curve. But with the World Tourism Organisation predicting the number of travellers worldwide will double to reach 1.6bn by 2020, Egypt is working hard to get more of the action. Tourism-related developments have, in the last decade, transfigured Egypt's coasts, just as they have impacted the cities with the most popular attractions.

Luxor, with perhaps the world's greatest concentration of ancient monuments, has recently undergone major and far-reaching renovations, designed to entice and accommodate more tourists. Cultural tourism, however, comes at a cost. Too many visitors can, and already are, destroying what they've come to see.

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Human traffic in the tombs and temples has raised humidity levels, accelerating the deterioration of their once-vividly painted walls. The vibrations of bus fleets increase pressure on ancient stone foundations, while urban development and agricultural irrigation contribute to the rising water table, now bubbling little more than a metre beneath the surface, which further undermines the structures. But balancing conservation needs with financial gain is a difficult equation, especially for a country with a burgeoning population and double-digit unemployment.

In Luxor, a town with a population of around half a million, plenty of locals are excited about recent developments, including a renovated train station, a new international airport, an upgraded souq, or traditional marketplace, and a new visitor's centre in the Valley of the Kings. But thousands of inhabitants have had to contend with forced evictions and the loss of homes.

Generational families occupying houses in the West Bank hillside village of Gurna, have been relocated further north. In Luxor town, the Avenue of the Sphinxes, a processional path linking Karnak and Luxor Temple, is being excavated so that tourists can follow in the footsteps of the ancients as they parade the golden images of their gods. Homes and enterprises have been bulldozed, and with them several centuries of historic, but alas, less lucrative, urban accrual.

Putting tourists first is nothing new in Egypt, where the first significant influx of visitors began in the 1870s. Prior to that, Egypt had been a backwater province of the Ottoman Empire, which viceroy Mehmed Ali had worked "to rouse . …

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