CAIRO — A hot-air balloon exploded over the ancient city of Luxor on Tuesday, killing at least 18 people and adding fresh turmoil to Egypt’s beleaguered tourism industry, which has been struggling since the overthrow of Hosni Mubarak two years ago.
Authorities said the balloon was drifting at about 1,000 feet when it caught fire and the basket plummeted into sugar cane fields shortly after dawn. Officials said the dead included nine passengers from Hong Kong, four from Japan, two from France, two from Britain and one from Belgium. The pilot, one British tourist and one Egyptian survived, officials said. Egyptian media reported that the pilot jumped from the basket immediately before it hit the ground.
Balloon rides over Luxor’s Valley of the Kings and pharaonic temples have been popular with tourists for years.
Egypt’s state news agency said a fuel line ruptured as the balloon was attempting to land. A fire erupted and wind lifted the balloon back into the air before it crashed. The General Prosecutor’s office has called for an investigation, and balloon flights have been suspended.
“Those proved responsible for the accident will receive severe punishment,” said Egyptian Tourism Minister Hisham Zazou, who was traveling in Iran.
The incident comes as the new Islamist-led government has been struggling to prop up Egypt’s image as a tourist destination despite road and train accidents, kidnappings, deadly protests and political strife. Tourism is one of the nation’s leading industries but the number of visitors has fallen sharply.
Estimates suggest that nearly 15 million tourists visited Egypt in 2010, the year before an uprising toppled Mubarak. That figure dropped to about just under 10 million in 2011. Officials said tourism increased in 2012, but the number of visitors remains far below earlier levels.
Violent demonstrations in Port Said and other cities killed more than 50 people in January. Days later, tourists in Cairo were alarmed when thugs ransacked and looted the Intercontinental Hotel near Tahrir Square. Bedouin clans in the Sinai Peninsula have often kidnapped foreigners and temporarily held them to negotiate the release of jailed tribesman.
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GRAPHIC (from MCT Graphics, 202-383-6064): 20130226 Egypt balloon