Boost for Luxor tourism threatens local lifestyles

By Yolande Knell
BBC News, Cairo

Image caption,
Um Abdul Aziz said she would never move from her village home to make way for a tourist marina

All her life, Um Abdul Aziz has lived on the green banks of the River Nile, close to Luxor in Upper Egypt.

Now 95, she rests on a bench with her great-grandchildren and proudly points out the mangoes, guavas and other crops which thrive in the family garden.

"I look at the Nile as soon as I wake up," she declares. "If I don't, it's like I've not seen my children. If they offered me millions I wouldn't move."

Until last month, residents of the village of Marees feared that 10,000 of them would have to leave their homes and fertile land because of a scheme to build a huge marina for sight-seeing boats.

It was only after they threatened legal action that the government backed down, saying it would consider other locations.

Sphinx avenue

Wide-ranging plans to redevelop Luxor, 15km (10 miles) away, have stirred up a debate about putting tourists' interests before those of locals.

Thousands of visitors come to see the site of the ancient capital, Thebes, each day and the authorities want to add to their holiday experience.

"The big vision is to change the city into the largest open-air museum in the world," says governor Samir Farag.

Work is under way to restore the ancient avenue between Luxor and Karnak temples, which is lined with more than 1,300 sphinx statues.

It was built in the time of Pharoah Amenhotep III, who ruled 3,350 years ago.

"Just five years ago, it was covered by mud and when we removed this we were surprised to still find all the sphinx," Mr Farag says.

"It will be a very beautiful place to visit. The avenue is nearly 3km long and connects the temples. When tourists walk through they will see Luxor as it was millennia ago."

Widespread demolitions

Some 2,000 families lived in buildings that were removed to uncover the route. They were offered compensation or new apartments.

Image caption,
Visitors explore the newly restored sphinx avenue close to Luxor Temple

Other projects to redevelop Luxor have also led to large-scale demolitions.

Bulldozers have knocked down old bazaars and Belle Epoque (late 19th Century) buildings close to the temples. The local football pitch has gone.

By 2030, a master plan shows the city will have new luxury hotels, golf courses and a pedestrianised corniche. It is expected to boost tourism, bringing more jobs and foreign currency.

"We hear that Luxor will be the best city in the world," remarks Ahmed, an enthusiastic restaurant owner. "Already you see the streets are now clean and we have many open spaces. Also we have very good new schools."

However, other residents have concerns.

"Nobody knows the future here because a lot of changes have happened. They don't know what will be taken and what will be destroyed," says one student.

Recent heritage

There were protests near Karnak temple two years ago when locals were forced to leave and in 2006 and 2007 when Qurna, close to the Valley of the Kings, was cleared to access tombs beneath it.

Image caption,
Bulldozers cleared modern homes in central Luxor to expose the ancient Egyptian causeway

Over 3,000 households now live in New Qurna 5km away, but many still have complaints.

"I'm not happy because I lost my bazaar," says a middle-aged man, Mohamed, who moved with his wife and four children. "As I do not have a bazaar, I do not have work."

The experience of the villagers in Marees has given hope to others who say that traditional ways of life and more recent heritage should be preserved as well as the ancient Egyptian monuments.

A fight continues to protect the 150-year-old Pasha Andraeos Villa on the Nile boardwalk and other Victorian-era buildings.

"Luxor's history is its history through the centuries. It's not just about ancient times," observes a foreign resident who believes the city is losing some of its charms and authenticity.

"People coming here don't want sterile holidays. If they wanted that, they'd go to Las Vegas or visit a theme park."