BEIRUT // Tourism is on the rise in Lebanon as the country shakes off the instability of war and new hotels in the capital prepare for an influx of visitors. The government has forecast a rise of between 10 and 20 per cent in the number of tourists this year, Fadi Abboud, the tourism minister, said this month.
Mr Abboud was upbeat about the prospects for a new steadiness in Lebanon and dismissed the possibility of war, which had been touted for months, chilling the country's tourism prospects. "I don't think that there will be an Israeli war on Lebanon and nothing will keep us away from working with great efforts to boost our tourism sector," Mr Abboud said. Several hotel chains have over the past six months taken advantage of Lebanon's new-found stability to open properties in Beirut. They seem confident that the business climate will remain at least favourable, but they do not dismiss the possibility of a new conflict.
"Of course we think about it. We are prepared, I am prepared. In the hotel we have an emergency plan," said Stefan Simkovics, the general manager of the Four Seasons, which is the latest luxury chain to open a hotel in Beirut. That said, Mr Simkovics, an Austrian who has managed Four Seasons hotels all over the world including in China, said he was confident in the return to peace. "People are starting to realise that there is peace, there is stability, let's go there," he said. The Four Seasons, opposite the marina and close to the established Phoenicia InterContinental in downtown Beirut, began operations in January.
The Four Seasons is one of three high-end hotels that have opened in Beirut in recent months. The others are the designer hotel Le Gray in the city centre and the Arjaan, operated by the UAE-based Rotana group in the Raouche quarter, which is more oriented towards Gulf tourists. The Lebanese ministry of tourism said an unprecedented number of visitors - almost 2 million - arrived in the country last year.
Last year's average occupancy rate for Beirut hotels was 72 per cent, the seventh-highest among cities in the Middle East excluding Israel, according to a survey by Ernst & Young. This was a huge jump compared with the year before, which was marred by extreme violence among the country's factions in May. Still, almost two years of relative stability since then has sharpened the interest of some of the major hotel chains. Mr Simkovics said had he been able to open last spring, he would have preferred to do so, "but we were not ready".
He said the long construction time for the hotel - the project was announced 10 years ago - was not out of the ordinary, but he did concede that Lebanon's several crises in the years between had slowed the process. The Lebanese tourism ministry considers the luxury segment as a way of promoting an upmarket image for the country. "The benefit of the luxury hotels is essential for Beirut as a trendy capital, and we do have a shortage of five-star rooms during high seasons and holidays," a tourism official said.
The ministry last year issued 20 permits for new hotels and apartment complexes with furnished units, the official added. But none of this will be enough to turn Lebanon into a destination for mass tourism and significantly raise the country's income from that sector, said Louis Hobeika, an economist at Lebanon's Notre Dame University. "For mass tourism, you need tours, where people can go from Lebanon to Syria, to Jordan, etc.," Mr Hobeika said.
He said Lebanon would have to offer tourists more than is now available. "I think the choice for Lebanon is either we want to have a touristic country or not. If we want to have tourism, we should open up." email@example.com