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Egypt's Luxor, just emerging from tourism collapse, fears new blow after attack on temple

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LUXOR, Egypt — Residents are in a panic in this Egyptian city of monumental pharaonic temples and ancient tombs, fearing that a foiled terrorist attack outside the famed Karnak Temple will kill the tourist industry on which most of the population depends for their livelihoods, just as it was starting to regain some footing after years of turmoil.

A day after the attack, tour operators organized a free day-trip to Luxor for more than 1,000 foreign sightseers brought from a Red Sea resort to bolster the city's spirit and show that it was still a safe and attractive destination. The tourism, antiquities, security ministers and the prime minister flew to the southern city to reassure locals and foreigners that the security situation is under control.

But in the city and surrounding province of nearly 1 million people, around 75 percent of whom earn their living from tourism, it was hard for many to contain their anger at the security agencies. While some praised the police for stopping the attackers from entering the temple, others said authorities should have known better that one of Egypt's prime tourist destinations was an obvious target for an Islamic militant insurgency that has boiled for two years and has moved from revenge attacks on police and soldiers to targeting the economy and the government.

The thwarted attack, in which a suicide bomber blew himself up in the parking lot outside the temple and two gunmen opened fire, could have been worse. No tourists were harmed, the temple was not damaged, and the only deaths were the bomber and one of the gunmen, killed by police. The third attacker was severely wounded and arrested, but remains unconscious. It appeared the attackers were all Egyptian, a security official, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk to the press.

Cushioning the blow to tourism, it took place early in Luxor's low season, the blazing hot summer months when there are already few tourists.

Still, "it was the first time that we get the message loud and clear, we have become a target," said Mohammed Othman, deputy chief of the travel agents association in southern Egypt.

Since the attack, Othman has worked the phones, answering queries from anxious international companies and diplomats from the U.S., Britain, and Japan— source of some of the city's loyal tourists — over details of the attack and security measures. He said there were no cancellations.

It's too early to tell the extent of the blow, he said. But Othman was clearly worried. "Tourism is the mother and father of Luxor," he said with a nervous laugh. "These parents are now sullied."

Luxor tourism had just been starting to revive after collapsing following Egypt's 2011 uprising. In 2011, hotel occupancy in Luxor didn't reach 3 percent in the winter high season, Othman said. In 2014, figures climbed up to 15 percent. This year, though the season has not yet arrived, there has been a rise, a reflection of political stability as President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi tightens his grip on power.

That mirrors the fate of tourism nationwide. After the 2011 uprising, the number of tourists tumbled from an all-time high of 14.7 million in 2010 to just over 9 million. Continuous turmoil kept figures low, and then a new blow came with the unrest surrounding the military's ouster in July 2013 of Islamist President Mohammed Morsi. But in late 2014, the numbers began to improve.

Most tourists, however, go to beach resorts along the Red Sea. Sites with antiquities as a draw — like Luxor, and even Cairo — have suffered more heavily.

Karnak Temple, a vast complex that is the second largest ancient religious site in the world after Cambodia's Angor Wat, is just one of the pharaonic treasures that once made Luxor a prime destination. The West Bank of the Nile, across from the city, features monumental temples and the Valley of the Kings, site of pharaonic tombs including that of King Tutankhamun.

PHOTO: An Egyptian tourist guide walks through the ruins of the Karnak Temple in Luxor, Egypt, Thursday, June 11, 2015. Militants tried to attack the ancient temple of Karnak in southern Egypt on Wednesday, with a suicide bomber blowing himself up and two gunmen battling police. No sightseers were hurt in the thwarted assault. (AP Photo/Hassan Ammar)
An Egyptian tourist guide walks through the ruins of the Karnak Temple in Luxor, Egypt, Thursday, June 11, 2015. Militants tried to attack the ancient temple of Karnak in southern Egypt on Wednesday, with a suicide bomber blowing himself up and two gunmen battling police. No sightseers were hurt in the thwarted assault. (AP Photo/Hassan Ammar)

The attack brought back memories of 1997, when tourism collapsed after Islamic militants waging a years-long anti-government insurgency killed nearly 60 tourists at temple of Hatshepsut on the West Bank. Tourism took years to recover, even after security forces crushed the militants.

Since Morsi's ouster, a new generation of militants centered in the Sinai Peninsula has stepped up a campaign of violence. After months of focusing on security forces, attacks increasingly target government installations and services in the capital.

Then on June 3, gunmen on motorcycle killed two policemen outside the famed Giza Pyramids on the capital's outskirts, signaling an ominous shift.

"There were already headlines out there. Why didn't the security agencies take that into consideration?" said Nasser Hussein, a tour operator in Luxor who works with British tourist companies.

He said that with things picking up in 2015, he had started to make plans for 2016, something that would have been unthinkable last year. "Things were beginning to move," he said. But now "it looks like it is coming to a halt again."

"We have a saying that tourism gets sick but doesn't die," Hussein said. "After what happened, we hope it only gets a little sicker but doesn't die altogether."

Hussein criticized police for failing to search the attackers when they drove in a taxi through a checkpoint into the temple's parking lot.

The taxi driver alerted police to the men. The driver, Haitham Marei, told the AP he got suspicious when the two men, whom he drove from downtown Luxor to the temple, refused to let him help take their two heavy backpacks in or out of the trunk. "When I tried to help with the bags, one of them pushed me back without saying a word," Marei said.

Earlier reports suggested the three attackers arrived together. But Marei said the third was waiting for them at a cafeteria in the temple parking lot.

"They didn't look like terrorists," Marei said. "But my heart clenched from their behavior."

Another taxi driver who was at the scene at the time of the attack also pointed to lax security, saying when he brings tourists to the site, police at the gate only ask the nationalities. He said residents of the area walk through the main gates and through a second entrance largely unsearched. He noted how exposed the site is, a giant temple complex nearly 90 acres in size, with residential buildings overlooking it. The driver spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of drawing police anger.

Othman, the travel agents association official, says that if he can't help restore Luxor's tourism, he'd rather leave and retire abroad. After the attack, he rushed around the city's hotels to reassure tourists and operators, and made sure the city's sound and light show went on as normal. And he called clients. To his relief, a Chinese group still plans to hold a conference in Luxor.

But he still doesn't know if 600 Latin America clients due this month will come or cancel. He was still waiting for their call Thursday.

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