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Last Updated: Friday, 8 December 2006, 19:10 GMT
Protests blow to Beirut economy
By Kim Ghattas
BBC News, Beirut

Lebanese protesters
Anti-government protesters have occupied Beirut's centre for days
The newly rebuilt centre of Beirut, once buzzing with shoppers and restaurant dwellers, has been taken over by hundreds of anti-government protesters.

The protesters are vowing to stay put until the Western-backed government of Prime Minister Fouad Siniora resigns.

The city centre has taken on the air of a permanent carnival, with tents set up for the protestors to sleep in and maintain a round-the-clock presence.

But while vendors selling balloons, sandwiches and coffee are making some profit, the presence of the protestors is having dire consequences for local businesses.

Lebanon's Economy Minister, Jihad Azour, recently said that every day of disturbances, whether protests or violence, costs the Lebanese economy some $70m.

Shops and restaurants in the centre have kept their shutters closed since last Friday, when the protests, led by the pro-Syrian Hezbollah movement, started.

Sealed off

The demonstrators have taken over two main squares in the centre of Beirut and the adjacent streets, making access to the commercial district difficult.

Government house in Beirut
Soldiers have prevented access to Lebanon's Government house

Out of fear of violence or rioting because of the tension between rival camps, the army has practically sealed off the whole of downtown Beirut with barbed wire and armoured personnel carriers.

"I cannot even get to my own shop without asking permission from the army," said Jihad el Murr, CEO of the local branch of Virgin Mega Store.

Housed in Beirut's old opera house, the multi-storey music and book shop represents 50% of Virgin's business in Lebanon and employs 120 people.

"We will not be able to survive much longer, maybe another few weeks but after that we might have to close this branch," said Mr Murr.

"If they want to have a demonstration, they can do it one day but is not permitted to do this to the economy."

A lot of businessmen also criticise the government for not helping small enterprises get over the shock of the war by alleviating taxes, for example, or offering other incentives.

Pedestrian streets lined with beautiful, newly renovated Ottoman-style and French mandate era buildings are deserted.

Shop owners have moved their merchandise to branches outside the area.

The real impact on shops, restaurants and clubs may only be known after things return to normal and businesses count their losses. Many may not re-open at all.

The centre of Beirut was gutted during Lebanon's 1975-1990 war but was lavishly renovated afterwards and became once more a favourite tourist attraction, especially among Arabs from the Gulf.

Tourism hit

The assassination of Lebanon's former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri in February 2005 triggered massive anti-Syrian demonstrations in downtown Beirut, which regularly brought the area to a standstill.

Lebanese protesters
Hezbollah says protests will continue until the government falls
In the summer, a 34-day-long war between Hezbollah and Israel ruined the tourist season, during which a million tourists were expected.

"We get 40% of our income in July and August, and we expected a million tourists instead of that we had a million refugees in Beirut," said Paul Achkar head of the Lebanese hotel association, adding that hotel occupancy around Lebanon was currently around 25%.

"Now for December, we expected 300,000 to 400,000 tourists. Instead we received 400,000 demonstrators."

Mr Achkar said that the hotel industry made a very quick recovery after the war ended because "that was that, it was over".

In mid-November, some hotels were already boasting occupancy rates of 80% but tourists and businessmen quickly packed their bags after the assassination on 21 November of cabinet minister Pierre Gemayel.

"What is happening now is that instead of having an attack from the Israelis, we have an interior attack and it hurt us even more because of the uncertainty it causes and Lebanon's history of civil war," said Mr Achkar, who estimates that some 15,000 tourism industry employees may lose their jobs by early next year.

Holiday season

In the aftermath of this summer's war, Mr Murr had to lay off 20% of his employees and is losing approximately $50,000 each day of closure.

With the holiday season coming up, businesses are concerned they will lose even more of their yearly income to political instability.

With a large Christian community, Christmas is big in Lebanon but a Muslim holiday, Eid el Adha, falls around 27 December as well, and Lebanon is usually a favourite holiday destination for people from the region.

"We can still have a decent Christmas season if it ends this week, otherwise it will be terrible," said Mr Murr.

"We will barely have a holiday season for the Lebanese, no-one will want to come to Lebanon.

"We already noticed a 50% decrease in our sales in shops outside the centre. All we want is to be left alone so that we can work."

Mr Murr and Mr Achkar said that pressure from the business community on political leaders to find a solution to help save the economy had had little impact.

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