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Syria spill-over damages Lebanese tourism

Tables stand empty at a restaurant on Beirut's Corniche boasting a view of Pigeons' Rock. The area is usually crowded with tourists from the Gulf at this time of year. [Joseph Eid/AFP]

Tables stand empty at a restaurant on Beirut's Corniche boasting a view of Pigeons' Rock. The area is usually crowded with tourists from the Gulf at this time of year. [Joseph Eid/AFP]

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From the terrace of his restaurant, which overlooks Bhamdoun al-Mhatta's main street, mayor Osta Abou Rjeily contemplates the silence in the town, which for a century has been a top destination for Arab vacationers.

Abou Rjeily looks out at the empty tables, ready to serve anyone who comes in for the restaurant's signature dish, Asafeer, for which it has been famous since 1926.

"Here we are, in mid-July, and there is not a soul in sight," he told Al-Shorfa. "This street, which used to be a popular destination for Lebanese, Arab and Gulf vacationers every summer afternoon, now longs for anyone who remembers it."

The situation in Syria and its spill-over into Lebanon has kept Arab tourists from the country, Abou Rjeily said, in accordance with the recommendations of their governments.

"We anticipated a bad season and asked the owners of shops, cafés, restaurants and hotels to not open their doors this summer to avoid further losses," he said. "So, only eight out of 35 restaurants and cafes and four out of 14 hotels opened for business."

Security flare-ups in Lebanon and Hizbullah's involvement in the fighting in Syria have damaged the tourism sector, and consequently the economy, Abou Rjeily said.

Lebanon's Syndicate of Owners of Restaurants, Cafés, Night Clubs and Pastries president Paul Ariss announced a deep decline in business at restaurants in Beirut and summer vacation regions.

Outside of the capital, 125 restaurants had to close their doors, while eight restaurants in Beirut closed down because of the tense security situation, he said.

Hotel occupancy has only reached about 20% of capacity, Hotel Owners Association president Pierre al-Achkar told Al-Shorfa.

This is 54% drop in business for the hotel sector in Beirut, he said, blaming the downturn on "the repercussions of weapons in the country".

"Tourism and weapons do not go together," he said.

Efforts to promote tourism

In the face of these challenges, the Ministry of Tourism is promoting Lebanon abroad as a cultural and tourist attraction, said ministry advisor Michel Hbeis.

"In an effort to promote tourism, the ministry has adopted a promotional plan directed at expatriates and those born abroad of Lebanese descent, inviting them to visit Lebanon through the voices of two singers, Assi el-Hellani and Yara," Hbeis said.

"The promotion, which highlights Lebanon's positive aspects and states that Lebanon has seen darker days and awaits its people and guests, has resonated positively with expatriates and circulated widely on social networking sites," he said.

The ministry is also stepping up its participation in European exhibitions, most recently in Cannes, France, in order to strengthen Lebanon's cultural image among potential tourists and position it as a main destination, Hbeis said.

"Tourism is a key engine of the economy," al-Achkar said. "When tourism is in good shape, the economy is in good shape."

The presence of Iraqi and Syrian nationals in Lebanon produces some movement in the market, as some Syrians who work in the Gulf choose to meet up with their families at Lebanon's mountain hotels, he said.

Despite a 37% decline in travel agency business from last year, "there is one positive, namely the 17% growth in travel ticket sales due to the Iraqi and Syrian presence", said Association of Travel and Tourist Agents in Lebanon head Jean Abboud.

Many are holding out hope that the situation will improve during Eid al-Fitr, al-Achkar said.