Almost exactly twenty years ago, in the morning hours of 17 November 1997, six Islamist terrorists slaughtered two guards and 56 foreign tourists at the mortuary temple of Queen Hatshepsut in Luxor, Egypt. It was one of the deadliest terrorist attacks targeting Western civilians prior to September 11. The perpetrators, associated with an Egyptian Islamist group Al Gama’a al-Islamiyya, were not directly on the path of a global jihad (though the operation was financed by Osama bin Laden); their objectives were much more limited – to put the pressure on the then government of General Mubarak by damaging international tourism, Egypt’s number one industry, and – in a tactic familiar to radicals and revolutionaries throughout history – to provoke Mubarak into a violent over-reaction, which in turn would turn the general population against him.
While the Al-Gama’a terrorists succeeded in the first objective, they failed in the second. The atrocity has instead turned the population against them, not just as an outrage against common decency and humanity, but because so many Egyptians directly or indirectly relied on tourism for their livelihoods.
And an outrage it was – having first killed the two armed guards, the terrorists spent the next 45 minutes leisurely hunting and gunning down tourists throughout the large temple complex. The bodies, particularly those of women, were then mutilated with knives and machetes. Among the dead were 36 Swiss nationals, four honeymooning Japanese couples and a 5-year-old British boy. One of the perpetrators was subsequently killed in shoot-out with the police and the others committed suicide in a mountain cave nearby.
The Egyptian tourism industry has never quite recovered. Over the next few years it continued to be the victim of both international climate post-September 11 as well as a number of fortunately less bloody domestic attacks. By the end of the 2000s, however, the tourism was starting to experience the upswing. Then the rise of ISIS in the region and throughout Europe has again spooked the potential Western visitors who stayed away in droves and continue to do so in 2017. The once-teeming tourist attractions like Hatshepsut’s temple now see a much smaller trickle of sight-seers. At other local attractions, out of a row of some twenty souvenir booths, only two are still open – and barely doing any business – while the rest stand boarded up. Those who remain in the tourist game compete with desperate persistence for the few remaining tourist dollars; their constant badgering does more to turn the tourist further off. Overall, the tourist arrivals are down by a staggering 50 per cent from what they were at the start of the decade.
I didn’t plan to visit the Temple of Hatshepsut on purpose so close to the twentieth anniversary of the terrorist carnage. It was only once I started walking around it occurred to me this was the place I remembered from the photos of seemingly so long ago, when we were still largely innocent about the Islamist terrorism.
Terrorism does not kill that many people. But terrorism definitely kills tourism. Herein lies its broader impact. It’s a weapon for generating fear, panic, and distrust. It changes people’s perceptions far out of proportion to the real, objective state of affairs. I have blogged about this issue around my last year’s trip to Europe and Egypt, and today is as good an occasion as any to repeat the basic message I had then, and I continue to have now – if possible even more strongly:
Don’t let the terrorist win. Don’t let the fear win. Live. Travel. Above all else, travel.
I’m not paraphrasing here the London Mayor Saddiq Khan and numerous others to the effect that we need to get used to terrorism or that it is now a part and parcel of modern life. We don’t and it we shouldn’t accept it as such. But we shouldn’t let it change our lives either; to limit us and imprison us in a cage of fear.
The fear of flying and the fear of travel are perhaps the most irrational of all the reactions to terrorism. And nowhere more so than in a country such as Egypt, which has suffered immense economic hardship as a result; a pain which is not abstract, but one which is deeply felt by millions of ordinary Egyptians for whom the difference between one tourist and two tourists is a difference between dire poverty and eking out meagre existence in an impoverished country with preciously few economic opportunities. Terrorism of course affects tourism in many places, around the world including for example France, but France is not as dependant on tourism as Egypt. In Egypt, the terrorists might have lost but they have won in a longer term, if impoverishing their fellow citizens can be considered a victory.
And consider more closely for a moment the first part of the sentence – “the terrorists might have lost”. There have not been any significant terrorist attacks targeting foreigner on the Egyptian soil for over a decade (a Russian plane has been blown up mid-flight over the Mediterranean while on the way from Egypt last year) – though there have been bombing attacks against Egypt’s Christians. There are conflicts going on in the neighbouring Libya and in a not so neighbouring Syria, neither of which has spilled over to directly impact on tourists in Egypt in any way. There is a low-level, al-Qaeda-backed insurgency in the northern Sinai Peninsula – ironically because the jihadis want to blow up the pipelines through which Egypt sends natural gas to Israel; one of the major remaining sources of foreign revenue in the absence of strong tourist numbers – but the Sinai Peninsula is nowhere near the major tourist attractions or the population centres; and again, the sporadic violence there has not spilled out into the rest of the Egypt. As for terrorist attacks in Nice, London or Brussels, it’s hard to see how they make the streets of Cairo, Alexandria or Luxor in any way less safe. In fact, in light of the continuing terrorist attacks in Europe, the streets of Cairo, Alexandria or Luxor are arguably safer for tourists than those of Nice, London or Brussels.
Luxor is Egypt’s third largest city – a very distant third, compared to the greater Cairo’s 20 million urban nightmare – but being so close to the ancient Egyptian Thebes with their necropoli of the Valley of the Kings and the Valley of the Queens, as well as numerous temples like Karnak and that of Hatshepsut, it has been historically a major centre of tourism. The relatively new and pleasant Luxor International Airport has only a few years ago been a destination for direct flights from major European cities, bringing in planefuls of tourists to see the glory that was Egypt. Reduced to a handful of domestic flights only, it feels like if not a ghost aerodrome then certainly a ghost of its former self and a ghost of its full potential. The ancient sites, which not that long ago were thronged with tourists – in numbers already reduced from the pre-1997 peaks – feel quite desolate. This is great if you like enjoying the sights in relative peace – and great for me to capture the stark beauty of monuments without human intrusions in the frame – but it’s terrible for all those depending on tourists for income: drivers, guides, hotel employees, souvenir sellers, and countless others.
In the city itself, just across the Nile corniche, the grand Winter Palace hotel stands virtually empty. Once owned by King Farouk himself (and still sporting a two-level Royal Suite) and now by the Sofitel chain, it once played host to who’s who of international royalty and everyone from the archaeologist Howard Carter, he of the Tutankhamun’s tomb’s fame, to Agatha Christie, who wrote her famous whodunnit “Death on the Nile” in the hotel. While the Egyptians only holiday in Luxor in winter, since they find the place too hot in summer but a pleasant escape other times of the year, mid-September should still be a holiday season for tourists from Europe and America. But it’s not. The Winter Palace, too, feels like a ghost place, haunted by more staff than guests, including a dwarf waiter, as if Tyrion Al-Lannister got tired of the game of thrones and decided to move to where the winter is never that harsh.
I had a fantastic time yet again visiting the inspired chaos that is Egypt. A challenging place it might be for tourists – especially those not on organised tours or who don’t have any local friends – but this has nothing to do with terrorism. So, for God’s sake, travel. Don’t deny yourself one of the great pleasures of life, and don’t deny those who rely on tourism your dollars, out of misguided fears for your safety. The only thing you have to fear is the fear itself.
(All photos copyright Arthur Chrenkoff)