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Lebanon quiet brings tourist boom

Byblos bay - June 2009
Lebanon expects two million tourists this year, about half of the country's population

Lebanon has for decades been so unstable that most people prefer not to plan at all and even short-term government planning is rare. But, as Natalia Antelava reports, the country is experiencing an unprecedented tourism boom based in part on its new-found stability and calm.

Elie Marouni, Lebanon's tourism minister, is a man with a plan. He has recently launched a 10 year programme he calls "a vision" for the tourism industry in Lebanon.

He insists he has reason to be optimistic.

His ministry estimates that two million tourists, which amounts to half of the country's actual population, are expected to visit Lebanon before the end of this summer.

"The numbers have doubled, and I am not surprised. Lebanon has it all: the environment, weather, nature, nightlife, ruins and history," says Mr. Marouni.

the minute there is some sort of political stability, we all come back to enjoy our country while we can.
Jasmine Khoury, tourist

Many Lebanese like to describe their country as the place where one can ski in the morning and swim in the Mediterranean in the evening.

It's not just the beaches, mountains, culture and food that make Lebanon a unique tourist destination.

In this largely conservative region, Lebanon is a place where the glitzy nightlife is a thing of national pride, where alcohol flows freely, and where less is more as far as bikini fashion is concerned.

These laid back beachwear rules apply to the resorts across the country, including the south where the radical Shia group Hezbollah is in control.

Full resorts

But this summer's unprecedented influx of tourists has little to do with the country's natural beauty or the relaxed attitudes of its residents.

The reason for the tourism boom is rather unnatural for Lebanon - political stability.

Mr Marouni admits that it's because of the relative political calm that hundreds of thousands of visitors have descended on Lebanon, paralysing the traffic, filling the seaside resorts and bringing the much needed cash to the economy.

By the pooll in Beirut - Natalia Antelava
One of the attractions is the relaxed attitudes in a conservative region

The richest among the tourists come from the neighbouring countries of the Arab Gulf, while most visitors from Europe and North America seem to be the members of Lebanon's 12 million strong diaspora.

Jasmine Khoury, 32, fled the Lebanese civil war in the 1980s and grew up in the UK. She says political stability for Lebanon is what sun is for London.

"In London, the second that the sun comes out people begin to pour out. Here, the minute there is some sort of political stability, we all come back to enjoy our country while we can.

"After all Lebanon's stability is as reliable as the English weather," Jasmine adds with a smile.

Funding shortage

The same day that Elie Marouni spoke to me about his 10 year plan to build more hotels, remove army checkpoints on the roads that lead to tourist sites and renovate the battered ski lifts, the Lebanese army arrested 10 men on charges of plotting terrorist attacks against United Nations workers in the South. The army said the men were part of a larger network lined to al-Qaeda.

"It shows that we are fighting to stop terrorist in Lebanon and to make sure that only the army has the weapons," Mr Marouni insists.

Lebanese companies are extremely tenacious. They all have very good contingency plans, they are all able to function under extremely challenging circumstances
Stephen Orr
US-sponsored Lebanon Business Linkages Initiative

But he admits that the Lebanese government does not have a full control over what goes on in the country, and that security is a real issue that turns many potential visitors away.

There are major financial issues too. Mr Marouni's says he needs around US $100m a year to implement his plan, but at the moment he only has around US $8m a year at his disposal.

The Ministry, housed in a run down building in Beirut's Hamra district, cannot afford to place advertisements on major international TV networks.

"Good marketing and improving Lebanon's image could play a huge role in attracting tourists," says Stephen Orr, the general director of the US government sponsored project, which tries to link private businesses to the global markets.

He works with dozens of companies in the tourism industry that have mushroomed here over the years.

Tenacious

The tourism boom shows that while the government drags itself through endless political crises and stalemates, Lebanon's famously creative entrepreneurs are grabbing every chance to develop and grow.

"I am very impressed with Lebanon's private sector. Lebanese companies are extremely tenacious. They all have very good contingency plans, they are all able to function under extremely challenging circumstances," says Stephen Orr.

The level of the development of the private sector, and Lebanon's natural beauty, is the reason Mr Orr believes the country could easily rival Turkey and Greece as a Mediterranean tourist destination.

But he says the country needs at least five years of stability to get to that level. And few in Lebanon believe that stability can last that long.

Back in his office, even Mr Marouni admits that there is an element of wishful thinking in his 10 year plan.

"In this country something might happen any minute, and any minute we could be thrown 10 years back in time," he says.



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