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French Version

Cloud still hangs over Lebanese tourism industry

The Lebanese tourism industry was on the verge of a groundbreaking recovery before the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. The country was buzzing with wealthy Arab tourists, international business travelers and a growing share of adventurous Europeans. But weeks after Hariri's brutal killing - in the heart of the city he reconstructed - local tourism agents are still agonizing over spiraling financial losses, while political instability continues to shroud hopes of yet another comeback.

The massive explosion that ripped apart Hariri's motorcade also brought down some of the city's finest hotels, and with them, much of the high-profile venues for conferences and sales meetings that had begun to put Beirut back on the map for global business.

"This was supposed to be one of the best years for tourism in Lebanon," said Aline Ghanem of Beirut-based Anastasia Travel. She said business was down by over 80 percent, largely because most major trade conferences had been cancelled or postponed.

"We used to schedule easily three to four conferences per week," she added. The niche segment for business travel had grown considerably in recent years, supporting the industry in slower winter months and accounting for some 30 to 40 percent of total arrivals, she said.

Along with the loss of Hariri, who spearheaded the movement to make Lebanon a luxury destination, the country also lost roughly 1,000 five-star hotel rooms - equivalent to one third of capacity - according to Camille Geha, a manager at the Beirut Radisson.

He said hotel occupancy fell from a high of 70 percent to a low of 20 percent in the wake of the blast; this despite the fact that the Radisson escaped the bombing unscathed.

"There is no real shifting of business, people just stopped coming," he said.

Landmark hotels such as the Phoenicia Inter-continental say they will be back in business in the next two months, however, a number of tour operators are reporting rock bottom losses in the wake of lingering uncertainty.

"There has been a major negative impact," said Amine Nasser, commercial manger for Saad Transport. "For February and March, we have 95 percent cancellations," he explained, claiming some 700 passengers had booked and cancelled between mid February and March.

"Basically, we are just on hold, waiting to see what's going to happen," Nasser said. "Instead of investing more, we don't know where we are going. We know nothing about the political situation. Everyday we are waiting to see what the circumstances will be."

But some tour agents were more optimistic, citing a relatively normal flow of arrivals with few irregularities. "At this moment we do not have too many cancellations," said Elie Nakhal, the general manager of Nakhal Tours. "I would say people are waiting to see what happens, but all in all, there is an optimistic feeling that things are going to be good for the season, particularly in summer."

The mood was also upbeat at Wild Discovery Tours: "Anyway, it was low season, so there wasn't many cancellations," said incoming manager Tania Amin. Despite the postponement of a major conference scheduled for March, she said an 80-person-strong delegation from Dubai was still on track for a mountain retreat next month.

"I believe in my country," said Violet Majdalani, the owner of Beirut-based Cross Tours. "Let the people take their freedom. Beirut is going to be better than before. People need to relax. After two weeks, everything will be back to normal."

Beirut,03 13 2005
Habib Battah
The Daily Star
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