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French Version

Lebanon expects record year for tourism (Daily Star)

Sector is country's second biggest foreign exchange earner
Visitors are up by 50 percent in the first five months of the year compared with the same period last year

As traffic in Beirut's downtown indicates, another record-breaking summer is expected for Lebanon's tourist industry.

Figures released last week by the Tourism Ministry show that the number of foreigners arriving in country during the first five months of this year alone are up 50 percent over the same period last year. Visitors were up 6 percent in 2003 despite the war in Iraq.
While some may credit this to the year-long advertising campaign, Rediscover Lebanon, whose 90-second spots began running in February on CNN, director-general of the Tourism Ministry, Nada Sardouq, said that it was too early to assess the impact of the campaign. "Besides, the campaign is not tourist oriented but aimed at business and conferences," she added. "It's about getting Europeans and Americans to reconsider what the reality of Lebanon is."

Sardouq cited instead efforts taken by the Tourism Ministry to encourage visits from foreign travel agents and journalists as well as participation in joint ventures with the private sector such as the ministry's Middle East Airlines sponsored website.

However, Sardouq was careful to point out that "This is not the result of one person or one ministry. The image of Lebanon is becoming separate from the wave surrounding us."

Heather Jackson of Australia, who came to Beirut to visit her husband, agrees. When her husband suggested she visit while he was in Lebanon on business she thought it was too dangerous, "but it's not at all," she said, "the people are very friendly and helpful."

She added that she would recommend visiting Lebanon to her friends, who she said share the misconceptions she had of the country prior to visiting.

Mike Qattlebaum of North Carolina, in Beirut on a two week vacation from Iraq, also suggested that his wife meet him here, saying "I love it, we will probably come back the next time I have a vacation."

"You can get around so easily - taxis are cheap and the people are nice," he said, adding, "it's non-threatening."

Sardouq cautioned that the sector remains fragile and emphasized the continuing need for the country to project a good image in all sectors.

"It's not only promotional campaigns," she said, adding, "the Tourism Ministry could do a huge campaign worth millions of dollars and one incident, like a strike or even a car accident that is shown on the front page everywhere, can do more harm and negate all our efforts."
However, she remains optimistic, saying, "All seasons are good now. Lebanon is really back as a top tourist destination."

Her sentiments were echoed by the Crowne Plaza in Hamra's Sales Manager Cyril Mouawad, who said occupancy was nearly 100 percent. Mouawad said last summer was "incredible" but this summer would be better, adding that "We are refusing as much business as we are getting; it's almost frightening."

The Crowne Plaza is not alone. Pierre Achkar, President of the Lebanese Syndicate of Hotel Owners, confirmed the trend seen at the Crowne Plaza, saying that hotel occupancy in Beirut currently averaged 90 to 92 percent, having reached 100 percent during the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries conference in early June. Outside Beirut roughly 40 percent of hotel rooms are occupied, according to Achkar.

Achkar said that summer, Beirut's peak tourist season, is already rolling. "May and June were a very good start," he said. He said he expected a 15 to 20 percent increase in hotel occupancy during July and August over the same period last year.

Achkar's projections are based primarily on flight bookings, which he said are up 70 percent for the summer.

According to the Audi Quarterly Economic Report for the first quarter of 2004, the tourist sector has proven to be one of the most resilient sectors in the Lebanese economy. It is second in domestic foreign-exchange earnings only to workers remittances, making it an important contributor to economic output.

All indicators seem to point to the number of visitors surpassing the million mark in 2004, reached for the first time in 2003. With average spending of $1,500 per tourist according to the Audi report, the tourist sector will likely contribute more than $1.5 billion in 2004.

Beirut 05-07-2004
Kate Weitz
The Daily Star

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