Hizbullah operation brings death blow to Lebanon's economic prospects
Hizbullah's Wednesday operation on the border with Israel and the latter's fierce response has undoubtedly destroyed any chance for Lebanon’s tourism sector to flourish.
Ahead of the surprising attack, Lebanon - once dubbed 'the Switzerland of the East' - readied itself for the current summer with high expectations from the tourism sector. Recent figures have indicated the flourishing of Lebanon's tourist market. The number of tourists visiting the country in the first five months of the current year has amounted to 460,000, a significant rise compared to the 272,000 visitors who came to Lebanon in the corresponding period of 2005.
In light of these positive statistics, Tourism Minister Joe Sarkis was quoted as saying his ministry expects at least 1.6 million people to visit the country by the end of 2006, generating nearly $2.5 billion in revenues, provided the country does not see a repeat of deterioration in the security situation. Tourism is one of Lebanon's major sources of foreign currency, but due to poor security condition last year, an 11 percent drop was reported in the number of tourists.
Tourism, one of Lebanon's key earners of hard currency, was hit after the February 2005 killing of former Prime Minister Rafik al-Hariri and a string of ensuing assassinations and blasts. The upheaval resulted in an 11 percent decline in the number of tourists to around 1.1 million.
The Lebanese tourism sector has been relied mainly on the rich tourists from the Gulf region, who enjoy the relatively free environment of Beirut compared to their homelands. "It's a nice country with a lot to do," one Saudi female tourist was recently quoted by the Daily Star newspaper. Additionally, Saudis like to shop in Beirut affluent outlets. Western visitors, however, prefer Lebanon's historical and cultural treasures - such as Baalbek, Beiteddine, Anjar - and cities like Tripoli and Sidon. There are also plans in place to target potentially lucrative untapped markets mainly in Central and Eastern Europe.
The Hizbullah's attack, which surprised many Lebanese politicians, has constituted a death blow to the tourism sector and hence to the entire economy. On Thursday, many tourists fled Lebanon by road to Syria after Israeli air bombardments closed Beirut's Rafik Hariri International Airport, reported.
An influx of European tourists would have certainly boosted the fortunes of many Lebanese businesses and create many jobs.
It is important to note that despite the overall rosy picture for the Lebanese tourism prospects, some sources in Lebanon have claimed before Wednesday events that the arms of Hizbullah represent a fear factor for tourists, as some Lebanese politicians manifested. Political figures and the Lebanese public demanded a period of "cool down" from Hizbullah and other pro-Syrian forces in order to have a chance to gain the benefits of this vital sector. All these calls fell on deaf ears.
The head of the Democratic Gathering and key February 14 figure, MP Walid Jumblatt, for instance expected discussions over the arm of Hizbullah will be extended. He called for the implementation of what he called "the resisting state" that would be under the government, and for the return of the truce agreement with Israel but with new conditions set by Lebanon to protect its borders.
Jumblatt said "There are no international guarantees, the only guarantee is building the state and spreading its authority on all Lebanese territories. I am with the resisting state, but to say that there is a state and there is a resistance, this is unacceptable and this position is in harmony with the position of Patriarch Sfeir."
In recent period, Lebanese quarters feared the tension in the Gaza Strip and the Israeli flight over the Syrian president's palace will spill over also to Lebanon's territory. They were right. Hizbullah ignored national interests and brought a major disaster to the already fragile economy. Hizbullah was asked before Wednesday to "show responsibility for the sake of the national interests of Lebanon." But, Hizbullah failed to do so and the Lebanese economy is expected to be severely damaged.