|By Tamara Qiblawi, The Daily Star,
Beirut, LebanonMcClatchy-Tribune Regional News
Sept. 14, 2011--BEIRUT -- Lebanon's hotel sector has seen revenues plummet by 38 percent in 2011, Hotel Owners Association chief Pierre Achkar told The Daily Star. Regional and domestic unrest were the main culprits behind poor performance in the industry this year, pushing tourists normally bound for Beirut to other Near Eastern destinations, mainly Turkey.
Normally when there's a crisis in the region, Lebanon is able to take advantage of the situation, offering Gulf Arab tourists relative comfort from the dire straits their countries might be in, said Achkar.
The global financial crisis of 2007, which rattled markets in the Arabian Peninsula but sidestepped Lebanon's conservative financial sector, is one example of this.
Regional unrest may have again missed Lebanon with the eruption of the Arab Spring, but the picture is looking starkly different, mainly due to recent shifts in the domestic arena.
"The Arab Gulf countries have not given the current government their blessing ... so Gulf Arabs are not encouraging one another to come to Lebanon," said Achkar.
Another issue keeping tourists away is Syria's unrest. The only country that shares an open border with Lebanon, Syria serves as a major gateway into the Lebanese tourist sector. Tens of thousands of tourists from Jordan and Gulf Arab states regularly shuttle through the country to reach Lebanon.
This year, widespread violence in the Arab Republic is putting a major dent in transport, forcing taxi fares up as security risks increase.
The number of Jordanians arriving in Lebanon through its land borders dropped from 31,000 in 2010 to 5,800 in 2011, according to Achkar.
Heightened air traffic has tried to make up for the loss in land travelers, with airlines dispatching additional flights on regional air routes. Statistics released Wednesday showed that Rafik Hariri International Airport posted a 23 percent increase in August arrivals year-on-year.
Still the loss of tourists trekking through Syria is far greater, said Achkar. Air travelers from Jordan, for example, have increased from 7,000 in 2010 to 9,000 in 2011, a small portion compared to the drop in land travel from that country.
Ramadan's falling in the middle of the tourist season -- from Aug. 1-29 this year -- did not help. It's a time when Muslims normally forgo travel, preferring to observe the strict requirements of the fasting month near to home.
But it's high time Lebanon caught on with that trend, said Achkar. Lebanon's high tourist season, which normally spans from late May to late September, has overlapped with the fasting month for four years now. It will continue to do for another seven years.
That should push Lebanon to seek non-Arab tourist markets, Achkar said.
It's a more difficult venture, because the Tourism Ministry must bring Lebanon out of the shadows of the unknown in those countries, bucking off its age-old image as a war-torn state.
Lebanon's Tourism Ministry must intensify its promotional campaigns that have so far received more airtime as talking points in political debates than as advertisements in foreign countries, he said.
The ministry claims it has been constrained by tight budgets. Achkar argued that while the ministry may be cash-strapped, the budget that they have has not been used wisely.
Tourist pamphlets have not been distributed to foreign travel agencies. Instead, they sit at local tourist offices, waiting to be picked up by passersby.
The Ministry must forge partnerships with foreign travel offices, offering monetary support for Lebanon's promotion by covering any losses the office might bear by going through such a venture, said Achkar.
(c)2011 The Daily Star (Beirut, Lebanon)
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