A hot air balloon flying over Egypt’s ancient city of Luxor has caught fire and crashed into a sugar cane field, killing at least 18 foreign tourists, officials say.
Tuesday’s crash was one of the worst accidents involving tourists in Egypt and likely to push the key tourism industry deeper into recession.
The casualties included French, British, Japanese nationals and nine tourists from Hong Kong, an Egyptian security official said.
Three survivors of the crash - two tourists and one Egyptian - were taken to a local hospital.
Rescue workers inspect the scene of a balloon crash outside al-Dhabaa village, south of Cairo, Egypt. Photo: AP
According to the security official, the balloon carrying at least 20 tourists was flying over Luxor when it caught fire, which triggered an explosion in its gas canister, then plunged at least 300m from the sky.
It crashed into a sugar cane field outside al-Dhabaa village just west of Luxor, 510km south of Cairo, said the official.
Bodies of the dead tourists were scattered across the field around the remnants of the balloon.
An Associated Press reporter at the crash site counted eight bodies as they were put into body bags and taken away.
The security official said all 18 bodies have been recovered.
Remains of the hot air balloon that caught fire and exploded over Luxor during a sunrise flight. Photo: AFP
The official said foul play has been ruled out.
He also said initial reports of 19 dead were revised to 18 as confusion is common in the aftermath of such accidents.
In Hong Kong, a travel agency said nine of the tourists that were aboard the balloon were natives of the semi-autonomous Chinese city.
It did not say whether all nine were killed. The information was posted on the agency’s website.
In Paris, a diplomatic official said French tourists were among those involved in the accident, but would give no details on how many, or whether French citizens were among those killed.
French authorities were working with their Egyptian counterparts to clarify what happened.
French media reports said two French tourists were among the dead but the official wouldn’t confirm that.
Witness Christopher Michel described the crash carnage on Twitter, where he posted a series of photographs showing the balloons ahead of the flight.
"It was the balloon behind mine. I heard a loud explosion and saw smoke," he said.
Michel, who previously made a balloon excursion with an English pilot, said the Egyptian operation "didn’t feel quite as professional" as that of his first voyage.
The US photographer told the BBC: "We flew over the ancient ruins. Just before landing in the cornfields, I heard an explosion and saw smoke. I think it was the balloon behind mine. "I wasn’t sure what had happened at first. It was only when we landed we heard the full extent of what happened.’’
"It’s really, really tragic and everyone involved is in a lot of shock."
Hot air ballooning, usually at sunrise over the famed Karnak and Luxor temples as well as the Valley of the Kings, is a popular pastime for tourists visiting Luxor.
The site of the accident has seen past crashes. In 2009, 16 tourists were injured when their balloon struck a mobile phone transmission tower. A year earlier, seven tourists were injured in a similar crash.
Egypt’s tourism industry has been decimated since the 18-day uprising in 2011 against autocrat leader Hosni Mubarak and the political turmoil that followed and continues to this day. Luxor’s hotels are currently about 25 per cent full in what is supposed to be the peak of the winter season.