x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

Syria conflict hits Al Habtoor in Lebanon

The head of Al Habtoor Group says his five-star hotels and flagship theme park in Lebanon are losing money as tourists shy away from the country that has been affected by neighbouring Syria's crisis.

The head of Al Habtoor Group says his five-star hotels and flagship theme park in Lebanon are losing money as tourists shy away from the country that has been affected by neighbouring Syria's crisis.

Khalaf Al Habtoor, the chairman of the group, one of the UAE's largest family businesses, said occupancy rates were not offsetting costs and he had no plans to re-open the company's amusement park, HabtoorLand, in Beirut.

"We are just making losses. The situation is very bad at the moment, there is no occupancy because of the political situation in Syria and the effects it has had on Lebanon," he said.

"We are just leaving our investments but do not plan to put in any more money."

By contrast, Al Habtoor's hotel business in Dubai is enjoying a surge of activity as visitors avoid lingering Arab Spring turmoil elsewhere and head to the emirate for their summer holidays.

In Lebanon, it is the cheap local hotels, not Mr Al Habtoor's five-star variety, that are full, mainly with Syrian refugees seeking extended stays in the country.

Ranked among the world's 500 richest people by Forbes, Al Habtoor's Lebanon portfolio consists of the Hilton Beirut Habtoor Grand and the Metropolitan Palace Hotel. HabtoorLand has been shut since 2005.

Mr Al Habtoor is among the few prominent Arabian Gulf investors to have embraced risk and invested in Lebanon.

Only in the last 15 years has the country emerged from civil war. Militias still reign ahead of the national army, the Syrian regime only withdrew its forces in 2005and there are periodic clashes with Israel.

In the past few months, Lebanon has sufferedsporadicoutbreaks of violence as a result of political spillover from Syria. Arab countries including Qatar and the UAE have issued travel warnings for the country. "Lebanon hotels are facing a challenging season," said Chiheb Ben Mahmoud, the head of hotel advisory for the Middle East and Africa at Jones Lang LaSalle.

"The Lebanese and the GCC guests have largely stayed away this summer because of the perceived instability in Lebanon and in the region as well as because ofRamadan. The armed violence in neighbouring Syria did not help."

Lebanon strongly depends on tourism to offset its current account deficit, which stands at about US$5.6 billion (Dh20.57bn), as estimated by the IMF. The country has about $64bn worth of debt.

Mr Al Habtoor has emerged as an outspoken critic of the Syrian president Bashar Al Assad's regime.

"The GCC are helping but what I am looking for is more transparency and to announce it," he said.

"The Gulf should back the Syrians to get rid of the criminal Bashar Al Assad."

halsayegh@thenational.ae

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