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French Version

French tour group visits Lebanon to support ailing tourism sector

The first international tour group to visit Lebanon since the August 14 cease-fire arrived in Beirut on Saturday in a solidarity mission aimed at reviving the country's war-ravaged global image - and hopefully the fortunes of its struggling hospitality sector.

The first step in repairing some of the damage to the tourism industry - which accounts for 9 percent of GDP - is for foreign governments to remove Lebanon from their travel advisory lists so tour operators can feature the destination on their rosters again, according to TLB Destinations, the company that organized this weekend's trip.

"We encouraged them to come to break the negative image of Lebanon the media perpetuates abroad," said TLB representative Riad Abdullah.

The company's business has dropped 80 percent in the aftermath of the war, he said, due to a dip in demand from both the international and local markets: TLB also organizes two themed tours per month targeted toward Lebanese residents.

"All of our activities have stopped so we've had to lay people off or ask some employees to take long vacations, because no one is responding locally or internationally," Abdullah told The Daily Star. "Now we are working with NGOs, the Tourism Ministry, and the Association of French tour operators to exert pressure to lift the ban."

Local travel agencies also cite government advisories against "all nonessential travel to Lebanon" as a huge obstacle to the sector's recovery.

Toufic Keyrouz, president of the Lite Otul Travel Agency, said the volume of August and September ticket sales in the Beirut market have been well below 2005 levels, which was not even a banner year due to political instability. Last August the travel agency syndicate (ATTAL) registered $30 million in ticket sales, compared to $50 million in 2006. Though Keyrouz said there was a brief increase to $20 million in overall sales for September 2006, most tickets were outgoing: purchased by Lebanese nationals going abroad.

October sales have dipped again during Ramadan since "no one is moving," said Keyrouz.

"No tour operators have put Lebanon back on roster," he added, "so reservations for the future are still short of what we expected, but we are hoping for a boost during Eid."

The president of ATTAL agreed that many members of his sector are pinning their hopes on Lebanese nationals returning home to visit their families toward the end of the month. But it is still too soon to project when regional and international visitors might venture back.

"Flights are fully booked from Arab countries to Lebanon [during the last three days of Ramadan], but we can't say

whether its Gulf tourists or Lebanese who couldn't come home during the summer," said Joseph Abboud. "People are waiting to see what happens with the political situation."

To make sure the six intrepid French tourists who landed in Beirut on October 7 - accompanied by an employee of the Paris-based Explorator tour group - were not deterred by perennial political bickering between Lebanese politicians, the Tourism Ministry offered some financial incentives.

In addition to TLB's 50 percent reduction in the week-long packages' usual price, entry fees were waived at tourist attractions and the French visitors were given free visas upon arrival at the airport. TLB and Libano Swiss also offered the visitors free travel insurance. The company said in a statement the tour would have been free of charge, but the revenue was needed to inject some much-needed cash into the secondary sectors of Lebanon's hospitality industry.

Beirut,10 16 2006
Lysandra Ohrstrom
The Daily Star
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