This month's premiere of a monumental rendition of Guiseppe Verdi's opera ``A"ida'' in the shadow of the 3,000-year-old Temple of Luxor marked a turning point for Egypt's tourism sector. Government officials say the 10 performances by the Arena de Verona Opera Company beginning May 2 were part of a clear recovery in Egypt's travel industry and gave a psychological boost to the nation's self-confidence.
After a spate of terrorist attacks in 1985 - including the hijackings of the Achille Lauro and of an EgyptAir plane in which 60 passengers died - tourism (Egypt's fourth-largest foreign currency earner) began to slack off, severely damaging the nation's balance of payments. The police conscript riots of February 1986, hinting at instability in Egypt, compounded the problem. Hotels all over the country were empty and travel workers despondent.
For little apparent reason - except, perhaps, that peoples' memories are short - tourists, mostly Europeans, began flocking back to Egypt last fall. Government officials now expect 1987 tourism revenues to equal or surpass the 1985 high of about $1 billion.
The ``A"ida'' performances have convinced officials that Egypt has finally shaken the terrorism image and that it's realistic to harbor great expectations about what the nation can achieve in tourism.
More than 3,000 people, including European royalty, couturiers, and tourists, attended the ``A"ida'' premiere starring Spanish tenor Pl'acido Domingo. Pictures of grandiose scenes on the edge of the Nile were sent via satellite to the United States and Europe. The World Service of the British Broadcasting Corporation called the ``A"ida'' rendition the most spectacular in the past 100 years. In all, some 30,000 tourists came to Egypt to see the show.
``We are really happy,'' says Salah Dirwy, deputy minister of state for the promotion of tourism, whose agency first recommended the ``A"ida'' project be approved. ``Ninety-nine percent of our dreams were achieved and the door is open now to anyone's imagination. `A"ida' was a great challenge to the whole country. It was a great reassurance that we are capable of being a proper tourist destination again.''
Egyptian government officials now feel they can boost travel revenues even more by promoting similar cultural events set in Egypt's unique environment. A broad discussion of new ideas for expanding tourism is under way. One idea involves staging an operetta in the Citadel, a 12th-century fortress in Cairo.
The staging of ``A"ida'' was significant because such original ideas frequently get bogged down in bureaucratic red tape in Egypt and never see the light of day. That might have been the fate of the ``A"ida'' project had Egypt not been so down in the dumps.
In 1986, the number of foreign tourists visiting here dropped to 1.3 million from 1.5 million the year before, and the number of American visitors fell by 60 percent. Egypt's other sources of foreign currency - oil revenues, Suez Canal tolls, and remittances from Egyptians working abroad - also slumped. The country could no longer meet interest payments on its $38 billion foreign debt.
But dire straits made Egyptian bureaucrats consider seriously the ``A"ida'' proposal made by Fawzi Metwalli, an Egyptian living in Vienna. ``We said, `What would we lose by discussing it?''' Mr. Dirwy said.
Staunch opposition came from the head of Egypt's antiquities organization, Ahmed Kadri, who opposed using ancient ruins as a backdrop for popular events. In the end, then-Prime Minister Ali Lutfi won reluctant agreement from Dr. Kadri by promising the antiquities department $5 for every seat sold.
Even with the contracts signed, officials here were haunted by the fear that the project would be a national nightmare. They doubted that the national carrier, EgyptAir, could transport thousands of Europeans in such a short time without major snafus, and they feared that the nation's communications and other infrastructures would buckle under the pressure.
But on opening night, said Dirwy, there were only two mishaps. One woman lost an earring and another left her handbag in a taxi. Both items were found and returned to their owners.
Officials hope this year to recoup losses in American tourism. About 200,000 Americans came to Egypt in 1985. After the terrorist incidents, Americans disappeared from the scene. But 21 percent more Americans came to Egypt in the first quarter of 1987 than in that period last year. Officials have no special strategy to lure Americans back. They are hoping that the Egypt fad currently taking Europe will spread to America.
``There's a virus called Egypt now,'' enthused a spokeswoman of the authority for the promotion of tourism. ``It's a real boom.''