Sticky security situation but Lebanon is hopeful about summer tourists

Published May 6th, 2014 - 01:35 GMT

Tourism Minister Michel Pharaon Monday said he expected activity in the tourism sector to pick up this summer due to an improvement in the security situation, but industry officials say the failure to elect a new president might hamper the forecast momentum.

“The capability of the government to assume its responsibilities on all levels, and especially on the security front, is greater today, and this will enable us to promote Lebanon as a tourism destination,” Pharaon told The Daily Star Monday in a phone interview he gave from Rafik Hariri International Airport while in transit to attend the 2014 Arabian Travel Market exhibition in Dubai.

Pharaon is participating in ATM, which is an annual event for travel and tourism professionals in the Middle East.

“I will be joining a team of 70 or 80 people from the Lebanese tourism industry at that event,” he said.

Pharaon said he would be visiting officials in the Emirates in order to discuss a lift of the ban imposed on Emiratis wishing to visit Lebanon.

“The political ban was removed. But we are still waiting for practical actions to take place in this regard, and I will be visiting some officials in order to try and resolve this issue.”

Saudi Ambassador to Lebanon Ali Awad Assiri announced Friday that his country no longer had a travel ban in place preventing its citizens from traveling to Lebanon.

“There is no ban on the travel of Saudis to Lebanon, but King Abdullah is only eager to protect the safety of his people and countrymen, this warning was only [put in place] under conditions that Lebanon witnessed in the past and that we hope will not be repeated,” Assiri told the National News Agency in an interview.

Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Qatar, Bahrain and the UAE renewed their advisories earlier this year, warning citizens against traveling to Lebanon due to the unstable security situation after a spate of bombings in the country.

Of the return of Gulf tourists to Lebanon and a promising summer season, Assiri said, “This return is linked to the success of the security plan and its effectiveness.”

The plan, which was launched on April 1, has so far succeeded in restoring relative stability to conflict areas, particularly the northern city of Tripoli and regions bordering Syria.

Pharaon expressed his optimism about the coming summer season, saying that security is the most important prerequisite for successful tourism momentum.

“The season will improve even with the existing political issues,” he said, referring to the possible delay in the presidential elections.

“People got used to political issues in Lebanon,” he said.

Economist Ghazi Wazneh echoed Pharaon, saying that the success of the security plan and the formation of the government were expected to improve the performance of the tourism sector this summer.

“Of course, the occurrence of the presidential election on time will boost further this sector. But even if the election does not take place on time and with the prevalence of a stable security situation, I expect the tourism season to do just fine.”

However, industry officials believe that the failure to elect a new president on time may have negative repercussions for the tourism sector this year.

“Even if the security situation remains under control, the lack of political stability does not lend itself to complete confidence and trust in the country,” said Paul Ariss, president of the restaurant owner’s syndicate in Lebanon.

Ariss said that Lebanese expatriates and Gulf tourists had become accustomed to visiting other destinations over the past couple of years.

“These people are going to other countries where they have all the benefits. They will always have question marks about Lebanon,” he added.

He said that most people who traveled to Lebanon were families that came in the summer and who would not want to take the risk to visit in such an unstable political situation. “I don’t want to sound pessimistic but this is the real prevailing situation.”

Jean Beiruti, secretary-general of the hotel owners association, said hotel reservations for the time being were very slow, but that the election of a new president was expected to result in a successful summer.

“However, if elections do not take place on time, we won’t be enjoying a healthy tourism season.”

By Dana Halawi

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