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Adam Rasmi

Hot weather, cold season?

Travel advisories erode confidence in Lebanon’s stability, essential for a thriving tourism industry

A man walks past empty restaurants in downtown Beirut which was once crowded by tourists mainly from the Gulf states at this time of the year on June 26, 2013.

While the number of Gulf tourists – who long represented the bulk of Lebanon’s tourism receipts – has declined in recent years, travel advisories issued since last July are taking an even greater bite out of the country’s economy.

“We do need a very, very big publicity [campaign] for Lebanon. I mean, look what happened about Hezbollah. This is really like a theater,” said Hala Mansour, a veteran guide with Lebanon’s Ministry of Tourism, noting the European Union’s decision on Monday to blacklist Hezbollah’s military wing.

During Lebanon’s summer season, many businesses depend on Gulf tourists for their livelihoods. In the past, GCC citizens would arrive to the country and stay for extended periods of time; many also owned homes in popular mountain villages like Bhamdoun, Aley, and Sawfar. GCC tourists preferred these temperate destinations to escape the Gulf’s blistering summer heat.

But these days, fewer Arabs are arriving at Lebanon’s shores. Though GCC citizens traditionally make up 65 percent of Lebanon’s visitors, the number arriving this year is 80 percent lower than the last. “This is a very bad indicator. This is a bad omen for the economy,” said Sami Nader, an economics professor at the Université Saint-Joseph in Beirut. He told NOW that dwindling tourism receipts will make it harder for Lebanon to absorb its burgeoning debt burden.

While the sector has been less hard-hit in Beirut – buoyed by business people arriving to attend work conferences – other parts of the country are seeing their coffers empty as Gulf residents opt for less seemingly-fraught destinations. “The major problem is insecurity in this country. Insecurity with tourism does not fit together,” said Pierre Achkar, president of the Syndicate of Hotel Honors in Lebanon (SHHL). He told NOW that the income from Lebanon’s hospitality industry has dropped 36 percent since last year. “In general, it is going very bad,” he said.

 

In Lebanon, tourism is a basic pillar of the economy. According to a report by the World Travel and Tourism Council, the sector employs 24 percent of the labor force directly or indirectly and accounts for 25 percent of the country’s GDP. During the last decade alone, tourism underpinned much of Lebanon’s economic growth, which ranged from 5 to 8 percent per year. “What’s worrisome today is that this has stopped. We find ourselves practically in stagnation, about 0.6 percent last year,” said Nader.

To a large degree, restrictive travel advisories have cooled down Lebanon’s once-thriving tourism sector. While various Gulf countries had issued separate travel warnings since July 2012, the GCC last week issued its first advisory in unison. On June 5, Abdullatif al-Zayani, secretary-general of the GCC, said at a press conference that Lebanon was “unsafe” for travel and urged all GCC citizens to leave at once.

But the timing of Zayani’s statement has raised questions about the GCC’s motives. Three days before the June 5 announcement, he told reporters that the GCC “decided to look into taking measures against Hezbollah’s interests in the member states.” His remarks came one week after Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah officially confirmed Hezbollah’s involvement in the Syrian conflict. GCC countries, particularly Saudi Arabia and Qatar, back the Syrian rebels against Bashar Assad’s regime. This has put GCC states at odds with Hezbollah, one of Lebanon’s major political parties and a key supporter of Assad.

Unless Lebanon upholds its policy of disassociation in Syria, said Nader, the tourism sector will continue to falter. “Neutrality is compulsory. It is a necessity, not only a political necessity, but an economic one too … Neutrality means economic development.”

But as GCC countries apply economic pressure as a last resort to curb Hezbollah’s involvement in Syria, analysts wonder whether the strategy will work. “At one point, they [the GCC] want the political base of Hezbollah to be shaken … But this strategy may backfire.”

Meanwhile, businesses dependent on Gulf tourists must brace for a difficult season as regional politics continues to hit the sector. “It’s all about governmental issues and advisories, otherwise people will come,” said the Ministry’s Mansour. “It’s a country really worth visiting.”

Downtown Beirut, shown empty, as the tourist season drags on. (AFP photo/Joseph Eid)

“It’s all about governmental issues and advisories, otherwise people will come."