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Flicker of life.

Lebanon as a tourist destination? After a decade and a half of ruinous civil war, the idea seems far-fetched. But true to form, Lebanese entrepreneurs are looking for ways to make money again from foreign visitors.

TOURISM WAS ONCE Lebanon's main foreign exchange earner alongside banking. The civil war put paid to that. But, remarkably, the leisure economy is beginning to stir again. At the Place des Martyrs in Beirut, for example, close to the Green Line which divided the warring Muslim and Christian factions, there are signs that better days may be ahead. In the midst of the charred skeletons of buildings, one entrepreneur has erected a few sunshades courtesy of Coca Cola, added brashly coloured chairs and is once again in business.

This may be a small symbol of an improving future. While the government has little money to spend on the tourist infrastructure, the private sector is prepared to be more active. For the first time in many years, Lebanon had a presence at ITB, the Berlin-based annual exhibition which is the most important even after London's World Travel Market in the international tourist industry calendar.

Nicolas Fatouch, Lebanon's minister of tourism, was delighted at the results. "Everyone was pleased to see us back", he said, "We received much support. We are very hopeful for the future."

At present, arrivals are mainly Lebanese who have settled in the United States and Canada, or have carved new careers for themselves in neighboring countries. Anyone who has been away for any length of time will be shocked and saddened at the mayhem and devastation that is so obvious.

The road blocks outside the airport are still manned, the huge paintings of the ayatollahs are still evident and the tanks remain in place. Yet side by side near the airport, two well-appointed hotels, the Summerland and Coral Beach, are open and flourishing. On the road to the city centre, open air markets are attracting business and there is a genuine air of activity.

Lebanon certainly has much to offer the tourist. Nasser Safieddine, the director-general of the National Council of Tourism, points out that in the last year before the civil war tourism was responsible for 18.5% of the country's GNP. "Our major clients were Arabs," he says," and the average length of stay in the summer was 42 days. Circumstances have changed, but tourists are returning and in April a 37-strong Swiss Choir performed, and they will be followed in September by the Stuttgart Symphony Orchestra."

As Safieddine says: "Unlike neighboring countries, Lebanon is a 12-months a year country. Summed up, we would say that hospitality is a way of life for a people that are accustomed to enjoy life in all its aspects. Where else can you snow ski in the morning and water ski in the afternoon? Add a wide variety of cuisines, an increasingly lively night life and many layers of history and you have a worthwhile product to offer."

In 1974, Lebanon had some 18,000 hotel rooms. Currently there are 9,000. By comparison Tunisia, one of the success stories of Middle East tourism, boasts 120,000. But there is also increasing evidence that businessmen are returning, either to monitor the local situation or as a stop-over between Europe and the Far East.

With the brunt of the troubles coming to a halt 18 months ago, confidence is returning. This has been boosted by the appointment of Rafiq Hariri as prime minister a few months ago. Though Lebanese, he also has Saudi nationality and is close to King Fahd. With some Saudis now actively exploring the bombed-out property market, there are increasing hopes of more investment. Hariri's appointment has been at least partially instrumental in the strengthening of the Lebanese pound from 2,950 to the dollar to 1,750.

With so many calls on the government's limited resources and concentration placed on infrastructural priorities such as electricity, telephones, schooling and health care, tourism is left very much to the private sector.

Serge Nader is one man with confidence in the future. He is managing director of Events, a sponsorship and promotions company which has persuaded some international companies such as Camel cigarettes and Pepsi to sponsor events as diverse as motorcycle water jumping. Nader is also instrumental in targetting international companies which may seek to leave Hong Kong prior to 1997.

By that time he visualises a much more viable Beirut as a leisure alternative, but admits many imponderables remain. There are ambitious plans for the renovation and redevelopment of the centre of Beirut, which should start within the next six months but will take up to seven or eight years to complete.

Middle East Airlines, the national flag-carrier which suffered enormously during the 17 years of troubles, has survived and is optimistic about the future. Beirut airport is scarcely luxurious, but MEA's marketing is geared to better times. It also has its eyes on the growth potential of the Saudi market, and this summer hopes to increase its weekly flights from Riyadh to Beirut from two to three. As Safieddine reiterates, "confidence is returning slowly, but it is returning, and Lebanon has so much to offer."
COPYRIGHT 1993 IC Publications Ltd.
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Copyright 1993 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Title Annotation:Lebanon's tourist industry
Publication:The Middle East
Date:Jun 1, 1993
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