LUXOR, Egypt (AP) — Egypt resumed hot air balloon sightseeing in the ancient city of Luxor on Sunday, weeks after a fiery accident led authorities to halt the flights.
Mohammed Ibrahim Sherif, head of the civil aviation authority, said the first hot air balloon was launched in the southern city after safety measures required by his office were implemented. He said five out of seven companies have been allowed to resume the flights.
Luxor governor Ezzat Saad, who boarded the first balloon with several British, Australian and Arab tourists, said he was pleased with the resumption, and considers the sport "one of the most important touristic aspects of the city."
Authorities suspended flights after 19 tourists were killed on Feb. 26 when their balloon caught fire and crashed in a sugar cane field. One British tourist survived, along with the balloon's pilot. Both were injured.
The tourists — from Hong Kong, Japan, Britain, Belgium and France — were travelling on a sunrise flight over Luxor's dramatic pharaonic sites and desert landscape.
The disaster occurred as the balloon was landing. Initial investigations suggested the fire broke out when a landing cable tore a fuel tube used to fire the burner that heats the balloon's air.
Sherif said investigations were still ongoing and may take another five weeks.
Ballooning experts say the accident was the worst in the sport's 200-year history. The second-largest disaster was in 1989, when two balloons collided over the Australian outback near the town of Alice Springs, killing 13.
Luxor has seen balloon crashes in the past. 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. After the 2009 accident, Egypt suspended the flights for several months and tightened safety standards.
The flights provide spectacular views of the ancient Karnak and Luxor temples, starting before sunrise and passing over green fields leading to the Valley of the Kings — the burial site of Tutankhamun and other pharaohs.
The first hot air balloon flight in Luxor took place in 1988, flown by foreign pilots and operators, said Ahmed Abboud, head of the Egyptian union for balloon flights. The first Egyptian companies were established in 1994, he added.
The accident cast a further blow to the country's ailing tourism industry, already hobbled by two years of instability following the ouster of Hosni Mubarak, who ruled the country for almost 30 years.
In 2011, the number of tourists coming to Egypt fell to 9.8 million from 14.7 million the year before, knocking revenues 30 percent to $8.8 billion. Last year, numbers rose to just over 10 million, but most tourists head for Red Sea resorts and not Nile Valley sites like Luxor.