Slump in Gulf tourists hits heart of Lebanon's economy

 

Lebanon's political crisis has turned into an economic nightmare for the vital tourist industry, hard hit by a slump in tourists from oil-rich Gulf states who have been told to avoid the troubled country.


Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Bahrain, whose citizens often spend as much of their money on Lebanon's ski slopes in the winter as they do on its beaches in the summer, have advised their citizens not to travel to a country in the grip of its worst political crisis since the end of the civil war in 1990.

Riyadh -- one of Lebanon's main bankrollers -- went even further, recently instructing its citizens already in Lebanon to leave the country "if possible".

And Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal warned last month that the country was "on the verge of civil war."

For a tourist industry already reeling from February 2005 assassination of former prime minister Rafiq Hariri and Israel's war on Hezbollah in the summer 2006, such warnings are the kiss of death.

"Without tourists from the Gulf, we can't live!" exclaimed Elyssar who works at a furniture store along the road that connects the capital Beirut to Bhammdoun and Aley, two villages very popular with rich Arab tourists.

"More than 50 per cent of our revenue comes from them as every year they update the furniture in their Lebanese apartments," she said.

Lebanon has been rocked by a wave of attacks against anti-Syrian figures over the past three years and is riven by a protracted political crisis that has left the country without a president for more than three months.

A long-running sit-in staged by the Hezbollah-led opposition in Beirut's downtown, rebuilt and renovated from the ruins of civil war, has also left the usually vibrant area deserted, forcing most of its shops and restaurants out of business.

"We can't talk about tourism anymore, it's over," lamented Pierre Ashkar, president of Lebanon's hotel owners' syndicate.

"Since Hariri's assassination in 2005 and the war in 2006, it's been nothing but a series of (assassination) attempts, fiery discourses and skirmishes. All this scares tourists away."

Tourist numbers were little more than one million in 2007, a dramatic fall to expectations of close to 1.6 million before the 2006 war with Israel.

According to the general union of Arab chambers of commerce, losses in the tourism sector over the past two and a half years have run up to $2.2 billion.

In the capital, where Saudis and Emiratis are known for their extravagant purchases, anxiety has won out.

In an upmarket boutique that sells signature bags priced between $500 and $1,000 apiece, salesgirl Cosette said sales have plunged because of a lack of customers.

In Beirut's large hotels, the number of customers has also gone down. "There have unfortunately been some cancellations by some Gulf clients," said a manager at the Bristol, once the grandest hotel in Lebanon.

Achkar said that during normal times, at least 60 per cent of hotel guests come from the Gulf but that occupancy rates had dropped by half over the past two years.

"We cut prices in order to attract clients," he said.

"Thousands of people come to the country from the Gulf and we are wasting all of it," said Paul Aariss, president of the Lebanese restaurant owners syndicate.


"Now we are afraid that Lebanese expatriates will decide to not come and vist the country.

The land of the cedars, as Lebanon is known, has about four million inhabitants and one of the largest diasporas in the world estimated at several million people.

"My wife, who is Lebanese, is in Canada but doesn't want to come back to the country. And why should she come in these conditions?" said Toufiq Shehayeb, a cafe owner in Aley.

Jawad, a 23-year-old bakery worker, said the latest travel advisories issued by the Gulf states were of little consequence as tourists have already deserted Lebanon.

"Since the 2006 war, they haven't come. Who feels like doing tourism in a country that could become like Iraq?"

In a luxury furniture store at an upscale mall, people seem less preoccupied with the situation. "Arab princes and princesses are amongst our customers," said shopkeeper Randa. "They make their purchases on the internet." (AFP)

 

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