|Ministry Web site aims to net tourists online
|The Tourism Ministry unveiled its new official Web site on Tuesday, as part of its campaign to attract more visitors to the country and boost one of the economy's most promising growth sectors.
The new Web site, www.destinationlebanon.gov.lb, is the culmination of a five-year, joint project between the Stanford Research Institute (SRI) and the Cultural and Social Development Association, and funded by a $150,000 grant from USAID.
US Ambassador to Lebanon Jeffrey Feltman said the transfer of ownership of the Web site from USAID and SRI to the Tourism Ministry represents more than just "a simple domain change" - the suffix was formerly .com - but signifies America's faith in the Lebanese government and its commitment to the country's economic growth.
"I'm proud that a component of the $40 million of funding the US gives to Lebanon each year goes to the Tourism Ministry," Feltman said at a ceremony celebrating the launch.
"Lebanon is a beautiful country, but as much as we all love Beirut what is really beautiful about it is the mountain villages, and USAID funding to SRI is to promote the 90 percent of this country that tourists never see."
The Web site aims to attract visitors to the country by increasing Lebanon's presence in the virtual world. About 80 percent of the tourism businesses in the country are represented on the site, which includes over 300 hundred listings that will continually be updated. Potential travelers have access to over 600 photos, 25 PDF brochures, and 20 virtual tours of nature reserves and archaeological sites.
Though it is still a work in progress, the Web site's designer, Catherine Johnson, said destination Lebanon is the most sophisticated tourism Web site in the region, and is on par with country-specific tourism Web sites in Europe, Asia, and North America.
In keeping with the global trend toward specialized travel, the site is organized thematically to appeal to key niche markets, such as city life, nature and adventure, culture and history, and kids and families.
SRI is fine-tuning an interactive map of Lebanon in the vein of MapQuest to be added in one year, and hopes to introduce French and Arabic language versions of the site soon.
"This will be an incredible marketing tool to attract international visitors to the country but it is also designed to be used by Lebanese who want to take a weekend getaway," Johnson said.
If measured by the number of page views - 1.5 million during the two-year pilot phase - the formula has been successful, but the site also is a good indicator of the tourism industry's health. During the same period the site registered 291,404 total visitors, concentrated mainly in Asia, Europe, and Australia.
SRI representative James Billings talked about other improvements the group was making aimed at making off-the-beaten track destinations more tourist friendly. These range from promoting the traditional village cuisine of the North, to installing a fresh-water shower at the public beach in Batroun and railings in certain areas of Mount Lebanon.
Tourism Minister Joe Sarkis praised the Web site that "falls within the ministry's strategy to promote tourism in Lebanon."
The tourism industry rebounded after a slump following Hariri's killing, and according to USAID figures from 2006, Lebanon surpassed the million-tourist mark for the first time in 30 years, an increase of 33 percent in tourist arrivals and the highest average per tourist expenditures ($1,500) in the Middle East.
Though Feltman heralded Lebanon's appeal, the US State Department still includes Lebanon on its travel advisory list, last updated in May 2006, which discourages American citizens from traveling to Lebanon.
"US citizens who travel to Lebanon despite this Travel Warning should exercise heightened caution when traveling in parts of the southern suburbs of Beirut, portions of the Bekaa Valley and South Lebanon, and the cities of Sidon and Tripoli."
The Daily Star