Beirut- It was projected to be a golden year for Lebanon and one to beat all records; instead 2006 with its string of crises including a 34-day war proved a disaster for the tourism sector.From the expected 1.6 million visitors, only 1.06 million traveled to the “Switzerland of the Middle East,” down almost seven percent on 2005 and a huge 17 percent on the previous year, according to tourism ministry figures.
“The situation is catastrophic,” said Pierre Ashkar, president of the hoteliers’ association. “In 2006, we suffered a 70 percent drop in business.
Losses between July and December reached 280 million dollars.”
And yet the year began with such promise, showing a 49 percent rise in foreign visitors in the first three months compared to the same period in 2005 — and with hotels fully booked at the start of the summer.
“We even had a 22 percent surplus in demand because of a shortage of availability,” said Ashkar.
Lebanon had been counting on 4.4 billion dollars in revenues and investments in tourism, a sector which represents more than 22 percent of gross national product and provides about 140,000 jobs.
The collapse came in July when Israel responded with a month-long war on Lebanon after two of its soldiers were kidnapped along the two countries’ border by the Lebanese Shiite group Hezbollah.
Lebanon became front-page news around the world, and television pictures of foreigners being evacuated on Western warships and of heavy civilian casualties ensured that the country was wiped from the tourism map.
Having barely emerged from war, Lebanon was then plunged into a political crisis when Hezbollah and its pro-Syrian allies started their protest in down-town Beirut, which pitted the pro- and anti-Syrian camps against one other.
Beirut’s downtown district, a magnet for tourists in normal times, was deserted during the summer war and has since last December 1 been turned into a stage for the opposition’s showdown with the Western-backed government.
Tensions degenerated in mid-January with bloody clashes in Beirut and other parts of the country that left seven people dead and more than 300 wounded, stirring fears of a return to the dark days of Lebanon’s 1975-1900 civil war.
Already the tourism sector was in freefall in December, the festive season when tourism numbers traditionally rise, closing the year down 20.6 percent compared to the same month in 2005.
Beirut international airport, which was closed during the Israel-Hezbollah war and for several weeks after the conflict, recorded a 14 percent decline in activity during 2006.
“The airport is the gateway to Lebanon. Every time the situation deteriorates, the belligerents block the roads, so how can you expect the tourists to come?” asked Ashkar.
Hotel owners have had to let go of 25 percent of their 25,000-strong staff because of the crisis.
“The seasonal restaurants, by the sea, up in the mountains, or in the Bekaa Valley, have registered an 80 percent fall in business. As for downtown Beirut, it’s a total loss,” lamented Paul Ariss, president of Lebanon’s restaurant owners’ association.
About 20 of the central district’s restaurants have shut down for good, while another 30 have closed “waiting for better days” and 40 others are opening only for lunch, he said.
The terraces where the wealthy Gulf Arab clientele who make up the bulk of Lebanon’s visitors would smoke narghile water pipes now stand empty.
“So long as there’s no political stability in Lebanon, tourists will stay away,” said Ariss, accusing Lebanese leaders locked in a political showdown of being “the worst enemies of tourism.”