Luxor, Feb. 26 (AP): A hot air balloon flying over Egypt’s ancient city of Luxor caught fire and crashed into a sugarcane field today, killing at least 19 foreign tourists in one of the world’s deadliest ballooning accidents.
The casualties included French, British, Belgian, Hungarian, Japanese nationals and nine tourists from Hong Kong, Luxor governor Ezzat Saad told reporters. Three survivors — two British tourists and the Egyptian pilot —were taken to a local hospital, but one of the Britons later died of injuries.
Hot air ballooning is a popular pastime for tourists in Luxor, usually at sunrise to give a dramatic view over the pharaonic temples of Karnak and Luxor and the Valley of the Kings, a desert valley where many a pharaoh, notably King Tutankhamun, were buried.
Rides in hot air balloons are a centrepiece of Egyptian tourism, which have been drawing many visitors from India, too. “Earlier, tourists would prefer the Nile cruise and desert safaris but now the balloon ride is extremely popular,” said a Calcutta-based travel agent. On average, 4,000 to 5,000 tourists fly to Egypt from Calcutta every year.
Hot air balloon accidents have been relatively rare. Luxor had seen crashes in the past but no deaths had been reported. In 2009, 16 tourists were injured when their balloon struck a cellphone transmission tower. A year earlier, seven tourists were injured in a similar crash.
Egypt’s civil aviation minister, Wael el-Maadawi, today suspended hot air balloon flights and flew to Luxor to lead the investigation into the crash.
The balloon, which was carrying 20 tourists and a pilot, was landing after a flight over the southern town, when a landing cable got caught around a helium tube and a fire erupted, according to an investigator.
The balloon then shot up in the air, the investigator said. The fire set off an explosion of a gas canister and the balloon plunged some 1,000 feet to the ground, according to an Egyptian security officer. It crashed in a sugarcane field outside al-Dhabaa village just west of Luxor, 510km south of Cairo, the official said.
Bodies of the dead tourists were scattered across the field around the remnants of the balloon. An Associated Press reporter at the crash site counted eight bodies as they were put into body bags and taken away. The security official said all 18 bodies have been recovered.
The toll puts the crash among the deadliest involving a recreation hot air balloon. In 1989, 13 people were killed when their hot air balloon collided with another over the Australian outback near the town of Alice Springs.
Among the dead today was a Japanese couple in their 60s, according to the head of Japan Travel Bureau’s Egypt branch, Atsushi Imaeda.
The crash comes at a delicate moment for Egypt’s tourism industry, formerly a vital engine of the now sputtering economy and a critical source of hard currency.
The industry is struggling to persuade tourists to return despite worries about safety and security after the ouster of former President Hosni Mubarak two years ago.
Egypt’s tourism industry has been decimated since the 2011 uprising and the political turmoil that followed and continues to this day. Luxor’s hotels are currently about 25 per cent full in what is supposed to be the peak of the winter season.
Scared off by the turmoil and tenuous security following the uprising, the number of tourists coming to Egypt fell to 9.8 million in 2011 from 14.7 million the year before, and revenues plunged 30 percent to $8.8 billion.
Magda Fawzi, whose company operates four luxury Nile river cruise boats to Luxor, said she expects the accident will lead to tourist cancellations.
Poverty swelled at the country’s fastest rate in Luxor, which is highly dependent on visitors to its monumental temples and the tombs of King Tutankhamun and other pharaohs. In 2011, 39 per cent of its population lived on less than $1 a day, compared to 18 per cent in 2009, according to government figures.
In August, Egypt’s Islamist President Mohammed Morsi flew to Luxor to encourage tourism there, about a month after he took office and vowed that Egypt was safe for tourists.
Deadly accidents caused by poor management and a decrepit infrastructure have taken place since Morsi took office. In January, 19 Egyptian conscripts died when their rickety train jumped tracks.