LUXOR, Egypt — The setting is already surreal: a warm breeze wafting off the Nile, a muezzin's call to prayer, and a full moon glinting against a giant stone visage of Ramses II, the most powerful pharaoh in Egyptian history.
At the same moment, U.S. warplanes bomb neighboring Libya, and most tourists are dismissing Egypt as a no-fly zone.
But not Mary and Pierre Combal. After being on "pins and needles" about the status of the trip they'd booked before Egyptian protesters ousted President Hosni Mubarak from power in mid-February, the Scarsdale, N.Y., couple are here despite a U.S. State Department travel warning — and couldn't be happier about it.
"One of my colleagues told me, 'I hope you come back,' " says Mary Combal, one of a handful of awestruck spectators ambling among the Luxor Temple's 3,500-year-old pillars. "But I feel strongly about supporting Egypt, and this is a magical time to be here."
Two months after the revolution that ended Mubarak's 30-year stranglehold, Luxor and other Egyptian cities remain eerily bereft of the 15 million annual visitors who contribute 11 percent of its gross domestic product.
U.S. tour companies are resuming their operations here, several floating discounts of up to 50 percent, and last week the State Department eased its warning to remove a recommendation that Americans defer nonessential travel. Other countries have lifted advisories as well. But by many accounts, tourism is down by 75 percent to 90 percent — still better than February, when foreigners made a mass rush for the exits.
Freedom and food
During the peak winter season, 300 vessels typically jostle for space on the 125-mile stretch of the Nile between Luxor and Aswan. Now, the few ships back in service ply the river like apparitions, their deck chairs and hot tubs all but deserted.
Across the Nile from Luxor, a pair of visitors mug for a camera at a nearly empty entrance ramp to the mortuary temple of Queen Hatshepsut — evoking comparisons to 1997, the year terrorists killed 58 foreign tourists at this site and sparked a similar (but relatively short-lived) plunge in international arrivals.
In the serene southern town of Aswan, an ancient crossroads for African caravans, shopkeeper Hassan Eldesokey leans disconsolately against a window that reads "No Hassle Free; Hassle 5 Pounds Extra." He spent last month in front of a TV set, transfixed by the upheavals in Cairo and elsewhere, and isn't doing much bargaining these days.
No matter: Before the revolution, Eldesokey says, those who crossed government authority "were taken to a place behind the sun." Now, despite the fact that his official teaching salary of $100 a month must feed four children, "money is not everything," he insists, just before launching into a spirited pitch for a purchase of jasmine perfume.
"Freedom," he says, "is more important than food."
A horse-and-carriage driver in Edfu, another popular cruise stop along the Nile, isn't so sure. When asked whether he thinks life will be better post-Mubarak, Ahmed Mohamed frowns and points to his skin-and-bones steed, Rambo.
"With no tourists," he says, "we are desperate."
Signs of revolution
As the U.S. State Department's revised warning points out, the security situation here and in Egypt's Red Sea resorts is "calm," but it's also "unpredictable and subject to change."
In Luxor last week, the most identifiable signs of the revolution were a few broken windows at the municipal library and cultural center, and a small knot of placard-waving demonstrators objecting to salary inequities at a local bank.
It's a different story in the capital, Cairo.
Already formidable traffic jams have intensified here since the revolution, filling a vacuum caused by the precipitous departure of the much-hated police (who are making a gradual return). And while the military's presence is diminished, armored vehicles and soldiers toting machine guns remain civic fixtures.
So do protests, though most focus on jobs and have not been directed against foreigners. At one demonstration by about two dozen anti-Moammar Gadhafi activists outside the Arab League offices flanking Tahrir Square — epicenter of the Egyptian regime's overthrow and focus of new "revolution tours" — an American tourist pauses to ask what's going on.
"We appreciate the U.S. help," replies one protester in English, waving a Libyan flag. "But we don't want American 'boots on the ground.'"
At the Egyptian Museum just off Tahrir Square, smiling soldiers now pose for photo ops with the few tourists who pass by. Also in the backdrop: the burned-out shell of the former headquarters for Mubarak's ruling National Democratic Party.
Inside the museum, where gleaming treasures of the past are displayed under peeling ceilings and dim, flickering lights, tour guides regale their charges with more recent history. Over here: an empty case that held one of the still-missing objects stolen during the early days of the revolution. Over there: the back door the looters chose as their entry point.
Reinder Prins, 26, a visitor from the Netherlands, is making his way to the room that holds the gold- and jewel-encrusted funeral mask of King Tutankhamun.
Normally, the packed confines would permit only a brief inspection of the boy king's paraphernalia. But in these anything-but-normal times, fewer than two dozen people stroll unhurriedly — with plenty of time to press noses up to the case with Tut's dazzling mask.
"If anyone asked me, 'Should I come? Is it safe?' I wouldn't hesitate to say yes," Prins says. He's still marveling over a recent visit to the pyramids in Giza, where he paid a bargain rate of about $17 for a three-hour horseback ride around the deserted monuments.
"I don't have a single picture with another tourist in it," he says.
How long it will take to refocus Egypt's crucial visitor economy — and return other travelers to those snapshots — is anyone's guess.
But back in Luxor, where he is leading Mary and Pierre Combal on an inadvertently private tour of Karnak Temple, Egyptologist Mohamed Abu Bakr is optimistic: "Tourism in Egypt will never die," says Abu Bakr, who in 17 years as a tour guide has seen the industry recover from such body blows as the 1997 Luxor massacre, the Iraq War and a series of 2005 suicide bombings at the Red Sea dive resort of Sharm el-Sheikh.
"It is like a sick man, but it will never die."