March 8, 2020 / 2:55 PM / a month ago

Egypt tries to protect tourism after coronavirus outbreak on cruise ship

* Coronavirus detected on River Nile cruise ship

* Ministers visit Luxor, try to ease concerns over tourism

* Tourism an important driver of economic growth

By Mahmoud Mourad and Nadeen Ebrahim

CAIRO, March 8 (Reuters) - Egypt is rushing to protect its important tourism sector and reassure travellers it is safe to visit after an outbreak of the coronavirus on a cruise ship on the River Nile.

Officials said on Saturday the coronavirus had been detected in 45 people, including foreign tourists, after the vessel reached the southern city of Luxor. Until then, Egypt had reported only three confirmed cases of the virus.

The ministers of tourism, health and civil aviation toured a temple on Sunday in central Luxor, across the Nile from the Valley of the Kings where pharaohs were buried in tombs carved into rock.

“We are here to respond to rumours saying that there are no tourists and people are afraid of coming. Thank God, people are here,” Khaled al-Anani, the tourism and antiquities minister, told state television before the camera panned across to show tourists queuing to enter the site.

“No to exaggerated reactions. Our eyes are on everything,” said Health Minister Hala Zayed.

The tourism industry is an important driver of economic growth and has rebounded after a decline following the 2011 uprising that toppled long-serving leader Hosni Mubarak.

Revenue was a record high of $12.57 billion in the financial year that ended last July, according to central bank figures.

At another top tourism site, the Giza Pyramids outside Cairo, guides and souvenir sellers said business had slowed over the past month because of fears over the coronavirus.

Ali Hamouda Hassan, who gives tours of the pyramids on horseback, said he now had “one customer every two days.”

The cruise boat struck by the virus has been towed outside Luxor and placed under quarantine, state media reported. Those who tested positive were flown by military plane for quarantine in northern Egypt.

Officials say the newly announced cases and others discovered in people who passed through Egypt originate from a Taiwanese-U.S. national who returned to Taiwan in February after travelling on the cruise ship.

Karim ElMinabaway, president of Emeco Travel Egypt, said there had been few cancellations from travellers abroad through to the end of June but tourism could be badly hit.

“We are receiving 10% of what we had been expecting for the first quarter of next year,” he said.

The spread of the coronavirus outside Egypt could have other knock-on effects on the economy, including on Egyptians working abroad, an important source of foreign currency remittances.

Hundreds of people were queuing on Sunday at Cairo’s main public laboratory centre for blood tests required by Saudi Arabia for workers travelling from Egypt to show they do not have the coronavirus. (Additional reporting by Omar Fahmy and Patrick Werr, Editing by Aidan Lewis and Timothy Heritage)

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