|Beirut blasts deal damaging blow to tourism figures (Daily Star)
|Series of attacks have kept hotel occupancies low and tourists wary about safety
The number of tourists visiting Lebanon last month plunged 18.5 percent below last February's level, signaling hundreds of thousands of dollars in losses for the economy.
Newly released figures from the Tourism Ministry show only 49,796 tourists visited Lebanon last month, down from 61,113 in February 2004.
"If the situation was normal, our expectations would have been higher than they were in 2004," Tourism Minister Wadih Khazen told The Daily Star. "We are trying our best to keep up with the tourist season for the coming summer and we are in close contact with tourist offices in other countries to attract people to Lebanon."
The sharp drop in arrivals occurred after the explosion that ripped through Downtown Beirut on February 14, killing former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri and 17 others.
No figures are yet available for March, but the series of bomb attacks targeting Christian areas in Beirut's eastern and northern suburbs have kept hotel occupancies low and foreign tourists wary about safety.
"A sort of wait-and-see attitude has been adopted by some people who were willing to book in advance for the summer," said Orpheus Haddad, manager of a Web site that promotes travel to Lebanon and provides information for tourists on the city's nightlife and culture.
Haddad, who also runs the bed and breakfast L'Hote Libanais, said he's only received one cancelation for March from a group of French tourists.
"The clients mentioned their decision was motivated by the fact that the travel advice page of the French Foreign Ministry Web site was advising citizens to defer all nonessential travel to Lebanon - rather than by something they read, heard or have seen in the media," Haddad said.
The new figures released by the Tourism Ministry are not all bad news.
The nearly 50,000 tourists who came to Lebanon in February are still more than the February 2001 total of 44,000.
The total number of tourists visiting Lebanon in the first two months of 2005 is only 8.2 percent lower than the totals for last year and is up by 8 percent and 18 percent respectively compared to the corresponding periods in 2003 and 2002.
Tourism to Lebanon hit record highs last year, bringing in an estimated $700 million to Lebanon's economy, according to Khazen.
A $1 million, year-long advertising campaign called Rediscover Lebanon launched in 2004 has helped increase the stream of tourists, luring over 1.2 million here last year.
Despite the bombings targeting New Jdeideh, Kaslik and Sad al-Boushrieh last week, there are signs of hope.
Hotel occupancies are beginning to climb back from their February nadir and Downtown Beirut spots damaged by the explosion that murdered Hariri are poised to re-open.
"We have good bookings for the summer," said Khazen. "A lot of tourists and Lebanese living abroad are hoping to come here as long as the situation settles down."
Khazen said there has been an upswing in tourists from Asia after the Tourism Ministry worked with embassies and tourism ministries in Asian countries to promote Lebanon.
In 2004 the number of tourists from Asia nearly doubled from 7,594 in January to just under 15,000 in December 2004.
A manager at the Beirut Radisson hotel, which was only slightly damaged in the blast that killed Hariri, said occupancy now stands at 20 percent, marking a small recovery from rates hovering near 10 percent in the middle of February.
Beirut's landmark Phoenicia Intercontinental, which was also heavily damaged, is planning a scaled opening beginning April 6.
"Hopefully it will be like last summer," a Phoenicia spokeswoman said. "But nobody will come to Beirut if the situation stays like this."
The Daily Star