Holidaymakers are returning to Lebanon with hotel bookings double last year’s figure, the nation’s tourism minister said, even as political upheaval linked to the war in Syria continues.
Hotel occupancy has jumped to as much as 70 percent this summer season from 30 percent in the same period last year, Michel Pharaon said in a phone interview in Beirut. While Lebanon’s rival political factions have been unable to elect a president in five rounds of voting, Pharaon said his “cautious optimism” had been bolstered by the formation of a cabinet in February after an 11-month void and a new security plan.
“I’m seeing things are moving quite quickly which in itself is surprisingly good,” Pharaon said today.
Tourism in Lebanon, which accounts for about a fifth of the $43 billion economy, has been hard hit as the three-year conflict between forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar al- Assad and opposition groups escalated and spilled over into neighboring countries.
Car bombs, clashes between pro- and anti-Assad groups and a wave of kidnappings kept tourists away, especially those from Gulf countries, which cautioned their citizens against travel to Lebanon. Gulf tourists make up 30 percent of consumption in Lebanon in the peak June-to-October period, Central Bank Governor Riad Salameh said in an interview last year.
The number of visitors to Lebanon in 2013 fell to 1.3 million compared to 2.3 million in 2010, which was a good year, the minister said. In 2010, hotels were reporting occupancy rates of about 60 percent, he said.
Pharaon, who recently returned from a trip to Saudi Arabia, said there are signs Lebanon could re-emerge as a major destination for Gulf travelers this year. He said 80 Saudis arrived in Beirut yesterday on board a flight carrying 133 passengers from the Saudi capital, Riyadh.
“It doesn’t mean we can forecast how many and in what numbers they will come, but let’s say they’re considering again coming to Lebanon this year,” Pharaon said.
Squabbling among the country’s major political players that has prevented the election of a successor to President Michel Suleiman, whose term ends on May 25, won’t deter tourists, the minister said.
“The Lebanese body has always had a kind of immunity to political problems as long as they’re not accompanied by a security deterioration,” Pharaon said.
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