LUXOR, Egypt (AP) — Egypt's President Mohammed Morsi pledged Friday to support tourism during a visit to the ancient Pharaonic temples of Luxor, a move aimed to assuage fears that the rise of an Islamist leader would undermine the country's allure for foreigners.
On a visit to the famed sites at Luxor and Karnak, Morsi said Egyptians are eager to ensure the safety of all visitors, urging tourists at the scene to feel safe.
"Here, you should feel safe. Move as you please, enjoy Egypt's atmosphere and its ancient civilization," he said in comments published by official news agency MENA. "Egypt is safer than before, and is open for all."
Tourism is one of Egypt's main foreign currency earners. It was badly hit by a slowdown after a popular uprising ousted Hosni Mubarak from the presidency in February 2011.
Officials in the sector say the number of visitors fell by a third last year, leaving operators struggling to boost tourism back to where it was in 2010.
Deteriorating security has been one of the reasons keeping tourists away. But many were concerned that with Islamists in power, officials would seek stricter rules for visitors, denting Egypt's carefree reputation. The country traditionally attracts Westerners and Asians, as well as Arabs and Muslims from other countries in the region with stricter social codes.
The worries were fuelled by calls to ban serving alcohol, restricting mixed-sex beaches or even forbidding bikinis from some.
Some also said they wanted to modify certain ancient monuments, for instance covering statues of Pharaonic fertility gods so as not violate Muslim sensibilities.
Others spoke of "halal tourism" — where men and women don't mix — and no alcohol is served. The arrangement is typical for instance to Saudi Arabia, where an ultraconservative interpretation of Islam prevails.
But many from Morsi's Muslim Brotherhood have tried to send reassuring messages, and the trip to Luxor seemed part of that effort. Some of the more radical Islamists have backpedaled from their calls.
"We will exert all efforts so that you enjoy your stay," Morsi told tourists.
The head of the chamber of travel agencies in Luxor, Tharwat Agami, called the visit "important" and said he hoped it would help the industry. "This is a message of reassurance for all tourists around the world."
A local member of the Brotherhood's political party, Abdel-Mawgoud Rageh, said Morsi's visit should silence fears that the Islamist group wants to stamp out tourism. "The party has a program to activate tourism and diversify it to include environmental and therapeutic tourism," he said.
The program also seeks to prevent big companies from wielding monopoly power in the sector, he said.
Meanwhile in Cairo, Egypt's new interior minister said security officials are working to restore security to the streets, pointing to a drop in crime rates in the days before he took office on Thursday. The comments were his first remarks since taking the helm of the vast security apparatus, which has been blamed for grave human rights violations that were partially responsible for the uprising against Mubarak.
Ahmed Gamal Eddin warned against exaggerating talk of lawlessness, which he said is aggravating a perception of deteriorating security and scaring off foreign investors.
"There is a feeling that something is not right and that is true. It can be lack of discipline, lack of moral discipline and a misunderstanding of freedom," he told reporters. "Saying lawlessness means the security agencies are unable to control crime."
He also said his ministry will respond firmly to protesters who block major roads or railroads, describing as "thugs" those who do so. The comments may indicate less tolerance for widening protests by citizens frustrating with deteriorating services and recurrent power and water outages.
Eddin also pledged to restore security to the Sinai Peninsula, where officials say Islamic militants have taken advantage of a power vacuum in the area to spread their influence. Security forces would work with the local Bedouin community to implement security strategies, he said.