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French Version

Lebanon's latest crisis deals another painful blow to tourism sector

Minister tells Arabs that news of bad events is 'highly exaggerated'

Lebanon's tourism sector was dealt another setback after the opposition closed all roads leading to Beirut's Rafik Hariri International Airport, Tourism Minister Joe Sarkis said on Wednesday.

"We are missing a lot of opportunities to attract tourists to Lebanon. First Israel ruined the tourism season when it attacked Lebanon in July 2006 and now Hizbullah has spoiled all our plans to bring in visitors," Sarkis told The Daily Star in an interview.

"Thousands of Arab tourists cancelled plans to visit Lebanon even before the closure of the airport. It seems that many of them felt that the situation would deteriorate sooner or later," Sarkis said.

Nearly all airlines suspended direct flights to Beirut after the closure of roads leading to the airport.

The Tourism Ministry had expected that more than 1 million tourists would visit Lebanon this summer. Officials had traveled to several Arab countries to promote tourism and ease the fears of potential tourists.

"I visited five Arab countries a few months ago to promote tourism. But I was surprised that some of these countries were quite concerned about the political and security developments in Lebanon," Sarkis said.

He said tourism can generate more than $2 billion each year, adding that this could help to achieve growth and improve the balance of payments.

"I tried to alleviate the fears of the Arab officials and assured them that the news about Lebanon is highly exaggerated but to no avail," Sarkis said.

He said it was difficult to calculate the losses in the tourism sector over the past five days.

"In general the economic losses, including tourism, is close to $350 million in the first five days and this may go higher if there is no breakthrough in the situation," Sarkis said.

Most luxury hotels in the capital reported that room occupancy fell below 35 percent after the fighting started in Beirut.

But Sarkis said he is still pinning hopes on the Lebanese expatriates who customarily spend their summer vacations with their families here.

In the summer of 2007, more than 80,000 Lebanese expatriates visited Lebanon. But the ministry said that the number of Arab tourists last year was far below normal levels.

Sarkis and many tour operators argue that tourism should be treated as one of the main pillars of the economy.

"If the Arab League succeeds in persuading the rival politicians to start talks in Qatar then the tourism season can be saved," he said.

But Sarkis said that it would not enough to open the airport road to encourage tourists to come to Lebanon.

"I don't see the meaning of the opposition sit-in near the Grand Serail. This behavior is also scaring away tourists and hurting the business in this sensitive commercial area," he said.

The opposition started a sit-in 18 months ago in the Beirut Central District to pressure the ruling coalition to accept a national unity government.

"I can't understand the motives behind the closure of the airport roads. All Lebanese use this airport," Sarkis said.

He stressed that all regions would reap huge benefits from a good tourism season in Lebanon. "I am counting on the Lebanese expatriates to pack up their stuff and come to Lebanon once this dilemma is over," Sarkis said.

He added that Lebanon would have its best tourism season once a president is elected a new Cabinet is formed. "I hope that all factions, including the opposition, grasp the importance of tourism. Tourism will also encourage foreign investors to build more hotels in Beirut and the mountains," he said.

Beirut 15-05-2008
The Daily Star

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