Lebanese tourism industry at risk this summer

BEIRUT — Bombings in Beirut and violence in north Lebanon are jeopardising Lebanon’s tourism industry, just as the normally lucrative summer season approaches, the country’s tourism minister said on Wednesday.

“It will be a disaster for Lebanon,” if the instability continues, Joseph Sarkis told Reuters at the government’s headquarters in central Beirut on Wednesday.

Almost a year after Lebanon’s economy was hit by war between Israel and Hizbollah fighters, fighting erupted between jihadists and Lebanese troops in the Nahr Bared camp, in Lebanon’s worst internal violence since the 1975-1990 civil war.

Bomb blasts also rocked some of Beirut’s popular nightspots, leaving the tourism industry, which had hoped to regain momentum after last year’s war, braced for the worst again.

Sarkis said if the violence did not stop, the summer would be dominated by “a declared war against terrorism”.

The industry was already struggling to cope with a political crisis between rival Lebanese factions, which led to the opposition erecting hundreds of tents in the commercial hub of central Beirut and forced several cafes and boutiques to shut.

Sarkis said the number of tourists in the first four months of 2007 dropped about 30 per cent from the same period last year.

Lebanon is one of the most popular tourist destinations in the Middle East for Arabs, because of its mild weather, sandy beaches, vibrant nightlife, and liberal and relaxed atmosphere compared to more conservative Arab countries.

Sarkis said if the violence stopped, it was still likely that Arabs, who make up 40 per cent of Lebanon’s tourists, would not cancel their plans to visit this summer.

Not so with the Europeans, who account for 25 per cent of tourists. Sarkis said Lebanon was losing European tourists who tend to plan their holidays earlier.

“Arabs will be coming to Lebanon because they are familiar with what’s happening… it’s part of the Lebanese folklore, the political disputes on television, this is part of the Lebanese way,” he said.

“But they know it ends all of a sudden like it started and so it might not affect their visit to Lebanon.” Before the Nahr Bared clashes erupted on May 20, business leaders in Lebanon called for a “100 day truce” — to cover the height of the summer tourism season — starting from    June 1. But with no end in sight to the fighting, which has so far claimed 79 lives and Beirutis refraining from going to bars and restaurants, because they fear more bombs, the mood is bleak.

“It [the truce] risks collapse, before it even starts,” Sarkis said, adding he expected about one million tourists to come to Lebanon in 2007, around the 2006 level, and generate a revenue of about $1 billion.

One of Lebanon’s biggest tourism attractions are its four summer festivals which feature international and regional artists, but which were cancelled last year due to the war.

They remain at risk again this year, Sarkis said.

He also lamented strict Western travel advisories on Lebanon, including in Britain, Canada and Australia.

“Terrorism is present everywhere, there isn’t a country that can claim it’s a 100 per cent safe.” 

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