The warm sun rises over the Egyptian Nile in the city which holds one third of the world’s most valuable monuments and antiquities.
With its pharaonic heritage, bazaars, souvenir shops, horse carriages and boat rides, Egypt’s Luxor is one of a kind city that has served as inspiration to many artists and authors (Agatha Christie wrote her famed 1937 novel Death on the Nile while staying at the city’s iconic Winter Place Hotel).
“There is no place like Luxor,” is a statement we hear from all of its residents. The proud announcements are often followed by descriptions of how unique and different the destination is, how welcoming its residents are and how it represents more than just a city. “This is where Egypt’s history lies,” says Mohamed, a 42 year-old-local. “This city holds the world’s civilization and without a doubt it is far more unique than any other city in the world.”
With the same number of population that take pride in their historic cultural legacy, the cities of Luxor and Scotland’s capital Edinburgh bear an uncanny resemblance. Both homes to UNESCO heritage sites that stand juxtaposed with urban modernity, the two cities are characterized by picturesque topographies and heritage architecture, water-front views and the chatter of tourists speaking every language on every corner.
Once the capital of Upper Egypt, Luxor, or Thebes, is home to the Luxor Temple, the Valley of the Kings and the Valley of the Queens, Karnak Temple, Memorial Temple of Ramesses III, Memorial Temple of Ramesses II and the Memorial Temple of Amenophis III, along with many other UNESCO heritage sites, making it not just a historic city but an open-air museum. The city monuments stand as testaments to the country’s civilization in much the same way that Edinburgh’s old town castles and streets capture the architectural essence of the 17th century.
“The Old Town is characterized by the survival of the little-altered medieval “fishbone” street pattern of narrow closes, wynds, and courts leading off the spine formed by the High Street, the broadest, longest street in the Old Town, with a sense of enclosed space derived from its width, the height of the buildings lining it, and the small scale of any breaks between them,” is how UNESCO describes Edinburgh – a city where history stands on every corner.
Where Does Luxor Fall Short?
The political turmoil Egypt experienced during the past five years has taken its toll on the city of Luxor, as well as the many other tourist destinations across the country. The number of tourists arriving to the country dropped significantly, with year-on-year comparisons showing over 40% decline in some months. According to the Central Agency for Public Mobilization and Statistics (CAPMAS), the number of nights spent by tourists also plummeted. Luxor was one of the main cities affected by the drop and, as a result, many of its locals have suffered from lack of consistent income.
In the past years, the city has hosted several recurring cultural festivals, from international ones such as the African Film Festival or the Egyptian European Film Festival or those celebrating cultural, folkloric traditions such as “Moulid Abu El-Haggag” and “Moulid Abu El Gumsan.” Unlike the twelve festivals of Edinburgh, however, the festivals held in the city have failed to keep their momentum in the face of a changing sociopolitical climate.
While Edinburgh’s historic and intrinsically Scottish Hogmanay, for example, has reached near cult-status across the world, Luxor’s local festivals have not captured international attention nor status despite the global touristic and cultural interest in the city. Meanwhile other continental or international festivals have moved to different cities or were simply nothing more than a one-off.
Azza El-Hosseiny, Executive Director of the Luxor African Film Festival (LAFF), says that the idea of the festival started in 2010 by Independent Shabab Foundation. Registered as a non-profit organization, the festival started receiving government funding and support from the Ministry of Culture and the Ministry of Tourism, and has managed to hold five consecutive festivals. Last year, the LAFF took place between the 10th and the 23rd of March and featured 170 films, held six workshops and issued six books. The sixth edition of the festival will take place between the 16th and the 22nd of March 2017.
Since the Egyptian and European Film Festival was moved to Sharm El-Sheikh, LAFF is now the city’s only international festival. “We wanted to create a cultural link with Africa,” El-Hosseiny says, highlighting that Luxor was adopted as an alternative venue to Cairo, “which is filled with events and activities. Luxor is a cosmopolitan city and having it in Upper Egypt gives a feel that we [LAFF] are taking place in Africa,” she adds. “We also wanted to encourage tourism and investment in the city.”
The City of Luxor did not just inherit Pharaonic monuments; it also carries with it the legacy of Egyptian bureaucracy that poses a threat to innovative attempts of tourism attraction. In the 1965 movie Gharam fy Al-Karnak, (Love in the Karnak Temple), a dancing company attempts to hold its show in the Karnak Temple but get shutdown several times as they try to receive the necessary permits. The dancers struggle to convince one official after another until it all comes down to one “Effendi” or “official” named Tohfos who refuses to sign the last permit because he cannot allow people “to dance in the temple.” After the company showcases its abilities and skills, the government official finally gives them his approval.
“I have met that Effendi, spoke to him, got several rejections despite having papers signed by the minister himself at the time,” the president of LAFF Sayed Fouad says, highlighting that it wasn’t until the festival started gaining international media attention that all logistical details started working smoothly.
In 1967, the Scottish Civic Trust was inaugurated with a special dedication to preserving the country’s heritage while allowing for modern planning and nourishment of the cultural scene. John Pelan, the director of the Scottish Civic Trust, says that the trust also helps young people build a connection to their past, an issue that the citizens of Luxor do not face as it remains a strong part of their presence and livelihood.
“Edinburgh’s challenge is how to allow developers to build without losing its heritage,” Pelan says. “There have been a number of quite controversial planning applications.”
He adds that some of the historic sites in the city remain vacant, stressing that Edinburgh struggles with “how to remain a world heritage site but still adapt to this century.” This is a hurdle that also faces the City of Luxor, which is famous for being historic and Pharaonic, but fails to attract interest and investment in other fields.
Unlike the Scottish capital, which has succeeded in making its festivals profitable, Luxor’s festivals have neither managed to alter the profile of the city nor to make it more attractive to different kinds of tourists. Fouad stresses that LAFF, which invites some 300 filmmakers, can help improve the city’s economic situation. When asked about the total attendance rate of the festival from locals and foreigners, Fouad mentions that no exact data has been collected, but that the number likely does not exceed 3,000. “Festivals help locals out,” he says. “Horse-drawn carriages start working and restaurants, boats and hotels all profit from festivals.”
Currently, the flights and accommodation of all guests attending the festival are paid for by LAFF itself. The festival’s president says that the actual economic impact on city has still not been measured, and adds that the plan to become a profitable festival like those held in Edinburgh is still a long-term plan that will likely not happen in the coming five years.
“It was hard to have an economic plan for the festival when the economic situation of the country itself was unstable,” Fouad says, adding that for the time being, the festival still depends on governmental financial support. “We approached almost all businessmen in Egypt and all but one refused,” Fouad says, stating that Al-Qalaa Holding contributed to the festival once, but has not repeated that support.
Director of Creative Edinburgh Janine Matheson highlights that squeezed budgets and economic challenges are not foreign to a city like Edinburgh. The difference, however, is that the existence of creative industries has pushed the city council to take notice. “There has always been a real cluster of creative businesses and individuals and artists in Leith and Granton,” Matheson says. “They wanted to find a way to better support creative industries … and they were quite positive”
In Luxor, on the other hand, the belief that festivals can attract tourists to the city is not a vision shared by many, it seems. Tharwat Al-Agami, advisor to the Chamber of Tourism, says that the “value of the festivals means nothing when compared to the monuments that the city holds. Any city can have a festival, but no one can have history like Luxor, The festivals are not what is needed to bring back tourism.”
The dependence on one source to attract tourists to the city, however, still hinders economic development. El-Hosseiny believes that making Luxor a festival city similar to Edinburgh will help in its economic comeback.
Despite the ailing economy, the City of Luxor continues to show endless resilience. This year, Luxor was unanimously picked as the “Capital of International Tourism for 2016” by the United Nation’s World Tourism Organization (UNWTO), a beam of hope to a challenged tourism sector. The Egyptian city will host the UNWTO’s 104th meeting at the end of the month.
The Ministry of Tourism has also issued several statements, which Progrss acquired a copy of, in which it states that tourists have begun frequenting the city again. During the first week of October 2016, the Ministry announced that 110 tourist arrived to the City, which was followed by the arrival of four flights, carrying 450 German tourists.
This was followed by the arrivals of around 1,200 international tourists and 150 and on the 13th of October, the city also received a group of 90 Swiss tourists that include a number of media personnel, who will shoot a documentary film that “encourages Swiss tourism to Luxor once again.”
The beginning of the winter season also witnessed the resumption of direct flights from London to Luxor after a six-month suspension. This announcement was accompanied by an increase in the number of flights by Qatar Airways to Luxor. The Qatari carrier stated that it would increase its daily service to the touristic city by 30,000 seats annually.
The tourism sector in Luxor shows slow signs of recovery, reflecting increasing political stability. The economy remains challenged but the pound devaluation has made visiting the country far cheaper than it was years ago. The government has also attempted to invest in a public relations campaign to restore its image as a safe country to visit. With Edinburgh’s festival season kick-starting in April (its festivals are on hiatus during the cold winter season), Luxor could serve a temporary alternative for the winter season with its warm winter weather and appealing culture. On the other hand, its ability to become a festival city remains unproven, although, if it were to successfully follow in the footsteps of Edinburgh as the world festivals’ capital, the Pharaonic city may see unprecedented tourism arrival rates as well as a much needed economy boost.