|Minister upbeat about Lebanon's tourism prospects|
|Visitor numbers already strong
Tourism Minister Joe Sarkis said Wednesday that the number of visitors in Lebanon in the first five months of 2006 reached 460,000, adding that the ministry expects this figure to exceed 1.6 million by the end of the year.
Sarkis made his remarks at the opening of the Safir Heliopolitan Hotel in Bhamdoun.
He added that the number of tourists coming to Lebanon in the first five months of 2006 reached 460,000 compared to 272,00 in the same period of 2005, an increase of 23 percent.
"We hope that the number of tourists will rise in the summer season as the Tourism Ministry has taken significant steps to encourage the arrival of tourists," he said.
Arab and other foreign tourists are expected in big numbers this summer despite the tense political situation in the country.
Most five-star hotels in Beirut are reporting over 70 percent room occupancy and expect this to rise to between 90 and 100 percent in the coming weeks.
Sarkis said he expects more than $2 billion in revenues from tourism this year.
Tourism was one of the main sources of income for Lebanon before the start of the 1975-90 Civil War.
In 2004, the Tourism Ministry reported 1.3 million tourists.
To help promote Lebanon, the Tourism Ministry launched a new Web site that contains valuable information for visitors to Lebanon.
The government has also allocated money to promote tourism in the country on satellite television this summer.
The bulk of the visitors come from the oil rich Arab countries and usually spend their summer in the mountain resorts of Aley and Bhamdoun. Many Kuwaiti and Saudi nationals have bought family homes in these towns.
Over the past seven years, wealthy Lebanese and Arab investors spent billions of dollars on the construction of five-star hotels, beach resorts and residential complexes in Beirut and the mountains surrounding the capital city.
Sources said the withdrawal of the Syrian forces following the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri encouraged many Gulf businessmen to pour money into tourist projects in Lebanon.
"Tourism should become the main source of income for Lebanon if the political climate improves. There are millions of Lebanese expatriates who are eager to visit their hometowns if the situation becomes more stable," one source said.
Arab tourists can be seen in large numbers in the coffee shops and restaurants of Downtown Beirut. Arab tourists became increasingly interested in visiting Lebanon, Syria, Jordan and Egypt in the aftermath of the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in the United States.
Syria, which is at loggerheads with Lebanon over the assassination of Hariri, is also taking more steps to lure tourists. Tour operators in Lebanon have called on the authorities to sign agreements with Syria and Jordan to encourage tourists to visit the three countries on package tours.
Beirut,06 19 2006
The Daily Star