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French Version

U.A.E. tycoon unveils plans for Lebanon (Daily Star)

Habtoor sees 'infinite potential' for tourism despite crisis

U.A.E. tycoon Khalaf al-Habtoor vowed to sustain over $400 million worth of tourism-related investments in Lebanon on Friday, and pledged to offer a host of incentives to lure visitors back to the country in a wide-ranging press conference with Sidon MP Bahia Hariri.

But Habtoor - the chairman of his self titled international hotel chain and real estate development company - also proposed a series of sweeping changes in the Lebanese government's tourism promotion strategy or lack thereof.

Brushing off concerns over the current political crisis, Habtoor repeatedly stressed his unwavering faith in the Lebanese people and economy, personally escorting Bahia Hariri and numerous eager journalists into the construction site of his latest project, a sprawling $250 million hotel and shopping mall complex that will at least temporarily become the country's tallest building.

Habtoor, who just inaugurated an $80 million theme park in the mountains above Beirut, said he would now offer 50 percent discounts on children's fares to help boost business, which has fallen off dramatically for hospitality operators across the country since the February 14 assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri.

Hariri's sister congratulated Habtoor for supporting the Lebanese economy, and called on foreign investors to continue to back her brother's drive toward rebuilding civil war-torn Lebanon. She also threw her weight behind Habtoor's extensive overhead presentation in what appeared to be more of a public policy-making forum than a business plan.

Habtoor said Lebanon possessed infinite potential as a tourist destination, but was in need of a master plan to achieve strategic growth, a feat that successive governments over the last decade have failed to implement for one reason or another.

Habtoor urged the establishment of a national tourism board that would communicate a clear and consistent message about the allure of visiting this country and coordinate efforts to streamline entry procedures and organize festivals, sporting events and exhibitions.

He said the move would help the Lebanese tourism sector overcome the gaping disparities between the volume of business in slower winter months and the peak summer season. Habtoor also urged boosting investment in national carrier Middle East Airlines and restructuring the entire airport administration, including the revamping of customs and baggage procedures, the retraining of personnel and the formulation of a plan to make the gateway a regional hub.

Habtoor illustrated his ideas with some figures for thought. He said every 25 new tourists creates one additional job and that every 50,000 additional visitors would create 20,000 new jobs. Habtoor drew a stark contrast between Dubai's hotel industry and that of Lebanon, saying the former boasted 95 percent average occupancy rates while the local sector struggled at 50 percent annual rates.

The U.A.E. national who accumulated much of his wealth in building some of Dubai's mega-projects, said he was confident in the resilient attitude of the Lebanese: "If I found you backward and negative I would have left the country," he later told The Daily Star with a laugh. He added that he would be vacationing with his family in Lebanon this summer, soliciting a roar of applause during the press conference.

In addition to offering discounts at the Habtoorland theme park as well as special rates at Habtoor's hotels, corporate officials said that free trips to Lebanon would be randomly awarded to those that purchase meals in restaurants located at Habtoor properties worldwide.

"We are putting our money where our mouth is," said Sanjeev Agrarwala, Metropolitan's area financial controller for Lebanon, adding that the company was eager to "salvage the summer season.

"We want to instill confidence inside and outside of Lebanon - that there is nothing to be afraid of and everything is normal here. The bottom line is that we want to tell people that this is a good and safe country to visit," he explained.

Habtoor's campaign comes as the latest development in the last two weeks of highly publicized activities to promote economic growth and social reconciliation, events that have largely been spearheaded by MP Hariri.

Beginning with a tour of the luxury hotels that were heavily damaged in the blast that killed her brother, Hariri has also led calls to organize a week-long national unity celebration, that was kicked off with a city-wide marathon and a series of high profile concerts that flooded the capital's streets with tens of thousands of revelers; this despite the current political vaccum and spate of bombings that have recently tapered off.

But Hariri side-stepped recurring questions about her political future during Friday's news conference.

"As I have said in the past, I am proud of the faith the Lebanese put in me and I ask the authorities to speed up the formation of a government and hold elections on schedule," she said in response to questions about the potential of taking over her brother's former post as Prime Minister.

"The Lebanese people have demonstrated after the assassination of Hariri that the will to live is stronger than the will to die," she said.

Beirut,04 18 2005
Habib Battah
The Daily Star
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