Steering his boat across the Nile away from the magnificent columns of the Temple of Luxor on the east bank of the river, Mohamed Hofni pointed to the hotels on the opposite shore and expressed relief that tourists were finally back in the city after seven lean years.
“This has been the best year since the revolution [ in 2011],” said the boatman, who makes his living taking visitors sailing on the river.
“The French had stopped coming but now they have returned. The Italians have also reappeared in town. Before, we had no work and no money.”
Tourism is finally recovering across Egypt, helped by cheaper prices and an improved security situation. Tourist numbers in the first quarter of 2018 were up 30 per cent over the previous year, industry data suggested, and hotel occupancy rates at their highest since 2010,
Reservations for the new season which started in September have strengthened, said hoteliers and travel companies, nurturing optimism in an industry seen as crucial for the country’s struggling economy.
Rania al-Mashat, tourism minister, had said that tourism revenues were expected to reach $8bn this year, up from $7.6bn last year, when 8.3m people visited Egypt. Although an improvement, that was still far below 2010 when revenues reached $12.bn and visitor numbers peaked at 14.7m visitors.
The flow of tourists to Egypt had declined sharply as a result of the political upheavals that followed the 2011 revolution. Then in 2015 the sector was dealt a devastating blow when Isis bombed a Russian airliner killing more than 200 holidaymakers shortly after take-off from the Red Sea resort of Sharm el-Sheikh.
Arrivals dried up, prompting operators to offer deals at bargain basement prices. The resumption of flights to Cairo from Russia in April, which had been completely suspended after the bombing, had also contributed to industry optimism, said Ms Mashat.
Luxor, reputed to hold a third of the world’s antiquities, had been one of the worst hit destinations since even before the plane bombing. Higher-spending visitors from western countries, the main market for Nile cruises and tours of Pharaonic monuments, stayed away, fearing unrest. This year, however, improvements in security at airports and the absence of significant attacks against tourists have spurred a rebound in visitor numbers from Europe and elsewhere.
As waiters at the ornate lobby of the Sofitel Luxor Winter Palace served welcome drinks to a group of Chinese tourists, Selim Shawer, the manager, said: “We are almost fully booked, unlike previous years.”
He added: “May is considered the beginning of the low season, but there are days this month when we will be completely full.”
At the Al Moudira boutique hotel, another luxury property set among palm trees on the west bank of the Nile, Zeina Aboukheir, owner and general manager, said she was encouraged by increased occupancy and advance reservations.
“I deal with individual guests mostly but another good sign is that travel agencies are also reserving,” she said. “For six years they had completely disappeared. I suppose they did not want to take the risk, but now they have come back.”
The rebound in tourism should lead to more hiring, said Mounir Wissa, owner of Escapades Travel Agency, which operates two Nile cruise boats or floating hotels sailing up and down the river to Pharaonic sites mainly between Luxor and Aswan in the south. He said that in August he will offer fixed jobs to the 40 per cent of his cruise boat staff that are currently casual workers.
“We are going to face the problem of not having enough staff. Many people left to work at other jobs because they had instalments or school fees to pay.”
Holly Colwell, an American tourist who had just finished a Nile cruise in Upper Egypt, said she was “overwhelmed” by the ancient Egyptian sites from the Pyramids to the temples in the south.
“I had been waiting for Egypt to open and as soon as US companies started offering trips, my friend and I booked to come.” Teresa Mahoney, in the same US group, said a trip to Egypt had been on her “bucket list” for a long time and although her children were concerned about her safety she decided to visit anyway because “if you worry about things like that, you will never go anywhere”.
For people like Mr Hofni, the boatman, the recovery means he can afford to repaint his two boats, Nile Dolphin and Humpty Dumpty.
He can also stop relying on his father, a farmer, for money to support his wife and four children. His hope is that the rebound will reach previous levels when the benefit extended far beyond those working directly in tourism.
“Everyone thrived,” he said. “When there is tourism, I could save, build and buy and sell property. Farmers, builders and plasterers, all had work.”
Get alerts on Egypt when a new story is published