Travel bans hit Lebanon’s tourism business hard

March 16th, 2008 - 9:08 am ICT by admin  

By Weedah Hamzah
Beirut, March 16 (DPA) Tourism, one of the main pillars of Lebanon’s economy, is currently in “the intensive care unit”, according to economists, due to the ongoing political crisis in the country. The hotel business has been particularly affected, according to head of the Lebanese Hotel Syndicate Pierre Ashkar.

“The ban issued by some Arab countries to their citizens on visiting Lebanon due to the political situation has dropped occupancy in Beirut’s hotel to zero,” Ashkar said.

Arab countries such as Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Bahrain, whose citizens often spend their winter and summer vacations in Lebanon, have advised their nationals not to travel to Lebanon due to the political crisis in the country.

The ban came after sporadic gunfire erupted last month in Beirut streets between government followers and the pro-Syrian opposition led by two Shiite movements, Amal and Hezbollah.

Clashes in the streets have also turned Beirut, known for its bustling nightlife, into a place of silence, except for the sirens of police cars. Police often set up checkpoints in various sections of Beirut to try to contain potential clashes.

Cement blocks are also another common sight across Beirut these days, reminding people of the danger of instability and possible attacks against government buildings and institutions.

These have added to the fears of anyone planning to come to spend a vacation in this Mediterranean city to enjoy the ski slopes in the winter and beaches in the summer.

“We cannot survive without tourists … We totally depend on tourism in this country,” said the manager of a five-star hotel in Beirut, who requested anonymity.

“Our occupancy is going down the drain, Easter is approaching and I can say occupancy is very low for the spring season,” he added.

In the past few months, the political deadlock has prevented Lebanese political rivals from electing a new president for the country and the seat has been kept vacant since pro-Syrian president Emile Lahoud ended his term in November 2007.

The crisis has raised fears that Lebanon is heading towards a new civil war similar to the one from 1975 to 1990.

“The fear of confessional street clashes … has added to the worries of the incoming tourists and this has reflected on the sector as a whole like hotels, pubs and restaurants,” Ashkar said.

Most hotels in ski resorts like the luxurious Intercontinental in Farya, northeast of Beirut, have been sending mobile messages promoting weekend packages for low rates, which include breakfast as well as lunch.

“Hotels have to cut prices, make offers to attract Lebanese customers now to make up for their loses,” Ashkar said.

Tourists numbers, according to airport officials, dropped drastically after the ban by some Arab countries.

“Planes coming from Arab countries like Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates to Lebanon are arriving with few passengers,” said airport officials.

“Mainly the passengers are Lebanese expatriates,” he added.

Some such as the head of the restaurant Syndicate, Paul Ariss, aired fears that Lebanon’s expatriates will decide not to come to Lebanon this year as well.

“The real fear now is that Lebanese will start staying away from their own country,” he said.

But despite the fears, Lebanon’s finance minister Jihad Azour stressed that Lebanon’s economy grew more than three percent in 2007.

“2007 was a very difficult year politically, in security terms, financially and economically, because of developments in oil price and the Euro,” Azour said.

“The economy achieved growth of over three percent in 2007 although it was greatly less than our aspirations,” Azour added.

Lebanon has $40 billion in national debt, equivalent to about 185 percent of its annual economic output, making it one of the world’s most indebted nations.

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