Luxor’s Chance for Smart Development

By Maria Golia - Guest contributor | Dec 19, 2013
Luxor’s Chance for Smart Development

In the eyes of the world, Egypt is Cairo, where political unrest leads the news. With around a quarter of the nation’s 90 million inhabitants concentrated around the capital, in addition to the bulk of wealth and industry, it’s easy to forget the rest of the country, which is what state officialdom has done for decades.  For administrative purposes, Egypt is divided into 29 governorates, each with a capital city. But the big decisions are made in Cairo, where governors are presidentially appointed and governorate budget allotments are scraped from the bottom of the national pot.

In terms of budgetary attention, Luxor Governorate in Upper Egypt is an exception, thanks to its pharaonic antiquities. Egypt possesses some 30 percent of the world’s ancient remains, and 70 percent of those, many remarkably intact, are in Luxor. The smallest of Egypt’s governorates, Luxor represents a sort of Egypt in microcosm, rich in the material heritage of the past and stuck in the current political-economic quagmire, yet full of potential for the future, not least as a model for the development of other rural governorates.

Luxor Governorate is home to a scant million inhabitants, mostly involved in tourism, commerce, farming, antiquities-related work, or a combination of all four. Straddling the Nile 720 kilometers south of Cairo, Luxor city’s population is approximately 600,000. Compared to polluted, crowded Cairo, Luxor is idyllic, its downtown skyline a collage of temple pylons, minarets, and church steeples, its clean-swept streets lined with shade trees and palms, its air desert-pure and dry.

Luxor became the capital of Egypt’s 29th governorate when former president Hosni Mubarak separated it from the adjacent Qena governorate in 2009. During his last years in office, Mubarak took a special interest in Luxor, appointing Samir Farag as governor in 2004 and charging him with protecting and promoting its monuments. A plan devised to reconfigure Luxor city as the “world’s greatest open air museum” involved leveling large swaths of the city to widen the Nile-side promenade and recreate the “avenue of the sphinx,” the processional road that in antiquity connected Luxor Temple to the Karnak religious complex. According to Egypt’s Ministry of Tourism, visitors could look forward to “a theme park where the main attractions just happen to be real monuments.”[1]

The project was controversial owing to the destruction of centuries of urban accretions that augmented Luxor’s charm, including forced evictions and poor compensation for lost homes and businesses.  In the wake of the January 2011 uprising, the plan was abandoned and remains largely on hold in the absence of funding. Tourism has declined nationwide, and the ascendancy of an Islamist government in June 2012 was viewed in Luxor as the coup de grace. Hotel occupancy, which can reach 90 percent in the winter high season, currently stands at 2-3 percent.[2] In the words of a local tour guide, “Luxor is a dead city.” 

Luxor has nonetheless outlived relatively long periods without tourism, most recently during the Gulf Wars and following the 1997 terrorist attack at the Hatshepsut Temple, where 62 people were massacred. It has also learned to take a back seat to beach tourism, which now accounts for 70 percent of the sector’s income.[3] Yet, as the unrivalled “shop-window” for Egyptian cultural tourism, Luxor residents agree that the local industry is bound to recover, hopefully by the winter of 2014. Maintaining several sources of income, including farming for a degree of food sufficiency, has helped many to survive these last three years, but peoples’ patience and resources are running out. Past practices add to current challenges for residents. Little effort has ever been made to balance tourism-related development with the needs of locals. As a result, Luxor’s residential areas, particularly on the west bank, suffer from inadequate infrastructure (water, sewage, and electricity), but also a lack of administrative follow through. As in other governorates, political instability has exacerbated the problems, delaying public works owing to reduced cash flows but also inconsistent management.

Since the 2011 uprising, Luxor's governors have been repeatedly replaced, stalling progress on every front. Samir Farag was replaced by an appointee of then prime minister Kamal Ganzouri. Four months later, with Egypt in the hands of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), Egypt’s former ambassador to Russia, Ezzat Saad, took charge. Former president Mohamed Morsi’s June 2013 attempt to replace him with Adel Mohamed al-Khayat, a member of al-Gama`a al-Islamiya, the group that claimed responsibility for the Hatshepsut massacre, was arguably the straw that broke the Islamist government’s back. Outraged Luxor residents gathered at the governorate offices to prevent al-Khayat from entering, forcing him to resign.  His replacement, appointed by the current interim government of President Adly Mansour in August 2013, is Tarek Saad el-Din, former head of the executive office of the Tourism Development Authority and former director of the Army Corp of Engineers.

Since taking office, the 59-year-old Saad el-Din has worked to encourage the lifting of travel bans placed on Egypt in response to Cairo’s turmoil.  To revive tourism, Egypt Air has announced weekly direct flights to Luxor from Paris and London. Domestic flights connecting Luxor with the resort towns of Hurghada and Sharm el Sheik are now returning to service. But when it comes to Luxor’s long-term development, Saad el-Din believes that “it is a mistake to rely on tourism.” Tourism is in fact Egypt’s Achilles heel; accounting for around 12 percent of the national income ($18 billion a year), it serves as a barometer of Egypt’s political and economic well-being.  The more tourists, the more perceivably stable the government—and vice versa.[4]   

In three short months, Saad el-Din has taken steps to advance his goal of a “clean and green” Luxor, obtaining funding for three solar energy stations atop his governorate offices, the Karnak Conference Hall, and the public library in order to power those facilities and serve as pilot projects for solar-fueled street lighting citywide. He plans to extend the natural gas pipeline that runs on Luxor’s west bank to the east bank to expand domestic and commercial usage. Luxor also possesses a functional industrial zone that lies idle. Having refused proposals to establish polluting cement and fertilizer factories, Saad el-Din instead helped to broker a deal to create the first electronics manufacturing facility in Upper Egypt. He is meanwhile seeking investments to create a local food industry to capitalize on the governorate’s agricultural production (mostly tomatoes and sugar cane) and to supply Red Sea coastal towns with produce that they currently truck in, at a greater distance and expense, from Cairo.[5]  Farmers would be encouraged to diversify crops to supply a new market. Processing tomato crops locally would mitigate the handling losses (up to 30 percent) incurred in transporting them to Cairo while offering employment opportunities.

Saad el-Din’s intention to protect Luxor’s environment and encourage agriculture while diversifying the local economy makes the kind of sense you rarely hear spoken in Cairo. The question is whether or not he will have the time and funds to realize his plans. Whoever is elected president in Egypt’s forthcoming elections may see fit to replace him. When asked about his and Luxor’s prospects in the coming months, Saad el-Din simply says, “We trust in the Egyptian government.  And we trust in the army.”

[1] See the Ministry’s official website:

[2] Conversation with Ihab Gaddis, hotel owner and British vice-consul in Luxor.

[3] “Beach Tourism is Here to Stay,” Ahram Online and Reuters, 21 September 2012,

[4] Ahmed Maher, “Luxor Struggles as Turmoil Keeps Egypt Tourists Away,” BBC,
19 July 2013,  

[5] Author’s conversation with Luxor Governor Tarek Saad el-Din, 8 December 2013.