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The Summer of 2006 Was Supposed to Mark Lebanon's Return as One of the
 World's Premier Tourist Destinations; Some Still Hope that
 Tourism will Become an Engine of Growth
By Leila Fadel, Fort Worth Star-Telegram, TexasMcClatchy-Tribune Business News

Aug. 31--BEIRUT, Lebanon -- With a 2-week-old cease-fire holding, Beirut's nightclubs are once again filled with dancing young people, the streets are noisy with the sounds of traffic and fashion-conscious Lebanese crowd the shopping districts.

But this seeming return to normal masks a terrible sense of loss: The summer that was supposed to mark Lebanon's return as one of the world's premier tourist destinations is gone, and so is the confidence that made the country's business community optimistic about the future.

But this seeming return to normalcy masks a terrible sense of loss: The summer that was supposed to mark Lebanon's return as one of the world's premier tourist destinations is gone.

Lebanon's tourism industry had huge hopes before July 12, when Hezbollah guerrillas abducted two Israeli soldiers, setting off a 34-day conflict. More than 1.6 million tourists -- a record -- were expected to flood into the country. They were expected to spend $4.4 billion in Beirut's lavish hotels and upscale shopping district. Huge music and dance festivals were planned for Byblos, Beiteddine and Baalbek.

Instead, tourists fled as Israeli forces destroyed bridges, buildings and roadways. With them went 60 percent of forecast revenue and hope that tourism will become an engine of growth -- at least any time soon. Two-thirds of Lebanon's economy is service-based.

"This 34 days of war has affected the tourist activity for the coming three years," Joe Sarkis, the minister of tourism, said as he sat on his balcony on a recent afternoon outside the town of Broumana.

Sarkis has spent the year since he took the job promoting Lebanon as a destination with beautiful people and places. Now he's trying to figure how to rid the country of its image as a violent place.

Among other things, he will map out a $2.6 million marketing plan that he'll put into effect only when he's certain the fighting isn't about to restart.

"We cannot act like nothing happened on July 12, launch a campaign and tell people -- Arab or European or Lebanese emigrants -- to come to Lebanon, a quiet and peaceful country, and then receive them like last time, with bombs," he said.

In June, hotel owners were beginning to see what a resurgent Lebanon could be like.

In Byblos, a 7,000-year-old city north of Beirut, people packed the hotels for a summerlong music festival that was to feature international stars such as French singer Francis Cabrel. In the old marketplace, which dates to the Ottoman empire, tourists were jammed shoulder-to-shoulder. An anticipated concert by Sean Paul, a reggae and hip-hop artist, and two performances by Moroccan humorist Gad Elameh had sold out as soon as tickets went on sale.

Now Latifee Lakkes, 66, the president of the festival's executive committee, sat at an open cafe on the cobbled paths of the old city and bemoaned what might have been. Nearby, a small stage, set up for sideshows during the festival, stood empty in front of a garden. The only customers at the cafe were a spattering of residents.

The festival gave refunds to those who had bought tickets, paid every artist whose performance had been canceled and lost at least $1.2 million, Lakkes said.

"God willing, Lebanon bounces back easily and quickly," she said.

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Star-Telegram staff writer Leila Fadel is in Lebanon on assignment for McClatchy Newspapers.

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Copyright (c) 2006, Fort Worth Star-Telegram, Texas

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