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French Version

Sarkis urges Arabs to band together to promote tourism

Arab League member states should collaborate to revive the ailing Middle Easter tourism industry after political instability and intermittent violence lead to a sluggish 2006 season across the region, Lebanese Tourism Minister Joe Sarkis said Thursday at the tenth annual Arab Tourism Ministers Conference in Beirut.

Lebanon is one of many Arab League member states whose tourism sectors have suffered from perceptions of regional insecurity following last summer's war with Israel, ongoing conflicts in Iraq and Palestine, and bombings in Egypt, Turkey, Morroco, and Algeria.

"It's the role of Arab tourism ministries to promote a positive image of the Middle East and to come up with more creative ideas to attract international visitors and activate the sector," Sarkis told delegates from 22 countries at the Metropolitan Hotel in Sin al-Fil.

Sarkis proposed compiling a comprehensive Middle Easter tourism guide, and encouraged delegates to organize training sessions for hospitality personnel in order to "fortify tourism in the Arab world."

"You all know that Lebanon has been going through hard times in the past few years, which have disastrously impacted the tourism industry. After a period of sustained growth, tourism has gone back to square one and related businesses are on the verge of bankruptcy," Sarkis said.

Tourism revenues in 2006 fell by 17.6 percent compared with 2004 - a more appropriate benchmark then 2005, when the sector was left reeling by the assassination of former Lebanese Premier Rafik Hariri - according to the latest 2007-2008 forecast from the Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU). The decline had a "knock-on economic impact," said the report, forcing the closure of many related businesses including hotels, restaurants, and car-rental companies.

Since tourism is "strongly dependent on perceptions of political stability" 2007 numbers are still expected to be low, but the EIU forecast a rebound during the outlook period. Paul Ariss, the president of the Hotel, Restaurant, and Cafe Syndicate, said visitors will return as long as the current impasse remains a "political struggle" and does not result in violence.

"We've had Arabs with property here coming in over the past few months even with the sit-ins going on, so if things remain the same I expect many Lebanese living abroad and Arab tourists to come this summer," Ariss said.

Aside from closures in Downtown Beirut, thousands of restaurants in the Bekaa, Mount Lebanon, and the South have managed to hold out after the loss of the 2006 summer season, said Ariss, but they will not be able "to stand another loss in 2007."

From the communication and marketing point of view, the ministry has done its best to mitigate the consequences of the war given its limited means, he said, but should step up efforts to respond to the demands of the industry.

"They are demanding the creation of a special fund to give long-term loans to tourism businesses so they can keep operating," Ariss explained. "Maybe the minister is pushing it, but the government is not doing what it should."

Marseille,05 03 2007
The Daily Star
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