Foreigners in Lebanon over Eid more likely to be taken hostage than seeing the tourist sites

Published August 21st, 2012 - 10:57 GMT
Beirut hotels are incurring more losses during a season already marked by low occupancy rates.
Beirut hotels are incurring more losses during a season already marked by low occupancy rates.

Lebanon’s tourism sector took another blow this week as hotels reported mass cancellations following a spate of kidnappings and threats to target Arab Gulf nationals. Most hotels estimated the room cancellations in excess of 30 percent.

The embassies of Saudi Arabia, Qatar, United Arab Emirates and Kuwait advised their citizens to leave Lebanon in the wake of security incidents which involved kidnapping of Syrian nationals.

“This summer season is not only over, you can say it has been martyred!” Pierre Achkar, head of the Hotels Association, told The Daily Star.

Achkar said the country’s hotels had been banking on Syrian, Iraqi, Jordanian and some Gulf Cooperation Council tourists to shore up occupancy rates during the Eid al-Fitr holiday, after an unprecedented decline in the number of tourists this summer.

“But now it is particularly the Syrians who would probably avoid being here,” he said.

“We had a glimmer of hope but now it’s gone and hotels, particularly outside of Beirut, have received a strong hit this summer.

Most hotels contacted by The Daily Star reported cancellations of around 30 percent as of Thursday afternoon.

Many said they feared cancellations would accelerate in the coming days if the tense security situation persisted.

“A high number of occupants have been canceling their stays. It is not only Gulf nationals, but occupants from all other foreign nationalities,” a reservation officer at Gefinor Rotana told The Daily Star.

He estimated around 30 percent have so far canceled their stays.

The situation was not any better at the prestigious Le Bristol Hotel, where a reservation officer reported around 24 occupants have canceled more than 100 rooms. “We barely have anyone staying at the hotel right now,” the hotel employee said.

Mayflower, a hotel in Beirut’s Hamra quarter, also said around 30 percent of its occupants have canceled their reservations.

Thomas Flindt, general manager at Four Points by Sheraton, told The Daily Star there were some cancellations at the Verdun Hotel, but thought the already-low occupancy was a greater source of concern.

“Just before the Eid al-Fitr last year, we had occupancy rates at approximately 80 percent. This year the reservations were already very low at no more than 40 percent,” he said.

Lebanon, which usually counts heavily on the tourism season to revitalize the economy and increase the balance of payments, has incurred heavy losses since the crisis in Syria degenerated into an open war between the regime and opposition,

The number of tourists dropped 8 percent in the first six months of 2012 compared to 2011 and a stunning 25 percent compared to 2010.

The decline is largely believed to be higher when statistics for July and August are included, particularly following travel warnings issued by several GCC countries last June.

Meanwhile a source at Beirut Rafik Hariri International Airport told The Daily Star that Middle East Airlines was sending more flights to Saudi Arabia Thursday. “We are sending five flights to Jeddah, five to Riyadh and two to Dammam, whereas on normal days MEA sends two flights to Jeddah, two to Riyadh and one to Dammam,” the source said.

From his Downtown office Mohammad Barakat, general manager of Barakat Travel and Holidays, fears that worse is yet to come, although he did not yet receive significant cancellations from his customers.

Before the kidnappings, tourism seemed to be headed for a post-Ramadan rebound, with reservations up by 50 percent, since Eid is expected to fall on Saturday or Sunday.

“This should stop immediately, or else the country will be in deep trouble and literally no tourist will be visiting anytime soon,” he said in reference to the kidnappings.

“We can only hope that our anticipation of a booming late [summer] season has not now completely evaporated,” he said.

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