Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 20 May 2019

UAE hopes to lift travel ban on Lebanon ‘soon’, ambassador says

The envoy had previously said the country would be ‘packed’ with Emirati tourists this summer

Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed, Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi and Deputy Supreme Commander of the UAE Armed Forces (third right), meets with Saad Hariri, Prime Minister of Lebanon (fourth right), during the 2019 World Government Summit. Ryan Carter for the Ministry of Presidential Affairs
Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed, Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi and Deputy Supreme Commander of the UAE Armed Forces (third right), meets with Saad Hariri, Prime Minister of Lebanon (fourth right), during the 2019 World Government Summit. Ryan Carter for the Ministry of Presidential Affairs

The Emirati ambassador to Lebanon, Hamad Saeed Al Shamsi, has repeatedly hinted these past few weeks at the possibility of the United Arab Emirates lifting a ban on its citizens travelling to Lebanon.

After a meeting with Lebanese Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil, Mr Al Shamsi told journalists on Tuesday that “the lifting of the ban on Emiratis travelling to Lebanon will come soon”, the state-run National News Agency reported.

“A team from the UAE department of civil aviation will meet with their Lebanese counterparts at the directorate of civil aviation to study technical matters”, he added.

Early March, Mr Al Shamsi had told Lebanese television network LBCI that he was working with “concerned authorities” to lift the travel ban to Lebanon.

Quoted by the Lebanese news website Al Nashra, Mr Al Shamsi said a few weeks later that this summer would be “packed” with tourists from the Gulf as the UAE was considering lifting a travel ban.

The UAE is the only Gulf country to have banned its citizens from travelling to Lebanon in the wake of the Syrian conflict. Saudi Arabia had imposed a travel warning which it lifted in mid-February.

Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Qatar and Bahrain had all advised their citizens to avoid Lebanon in 2012 because of an increase in kidnappings, car bombs and gunfights as the Syrian war created tensions in neighbouring Lebanon.

In the summer of 2017, the Lebanese army kicked out the last ISIS enclave operating in the country in a mountainous area along the border with Syria.

The UAE ambassador’s announcements have enthused local businesses as Gulf tourists are traditionally big spenders in the small Mediterranean country reputed for its beaches, mountains and laid-back lifestyle.

Pierre Achkar, the head of the Lebanese Hotel Owners’ association, told The National that an increase in Gulf tourists was “very positive”.

“Lebanon is a service economy and tourism is particularly important,” he said.

He added that he has been expecting a lifting of the travel ban on Emirati visitors to Lebanon since March, when the Lebanese ambassador to the UAE informed him that it should happen “soon”.

“The fact that Emirati tourists come to Lebanon enhances our brand image,” he said.

Spokespeople for two of Beirut’s five-star hotels, the Phoenicia and the Kempinski Summerland hotel and resort, both told The National that they had witnessed an increase in tourists from the Gulf since the beginning of the year, particularly from Saudi Arabia.

“Moreover, with the potential lift of the UAE travel ban, we are expecting to maintain this growth and welcome Emirati travellers, especially in the summer period and until the end of the year,” Tracey Bolton, director of sales and marketing at the Phoenicia Hotel, said.

Nadia Madi, director of sales and marketing at the Kempinski Summerland hotel and resort in Beirut, said that the return of Emirati tourists would “reflect well on the hospitality sector as well as on the Lebanese economy as a whole”.

Figures published in Lebanon This Week, a weekly report published by Byblos Bank, mirror these observations.

The number of Saudi visitors grew by 80 per cent in the first quarter of 2019, according to the Tourism Ministry. Overall, the number of Arab visitors increased by 16.4 per cent over the same period, mostly due to the Arab economic summit that was held in Beirut in January.

In parallel, Ernst & Young figures show that the average occupancy rate in four and five-star hotels in Beirut shot up by 10 per cent in January and February to 65 per cent. In comparison, the average occupancy rate in Arab markets only grew by 1.2 per cent over the same period.

Updated: May 8, 2019 07:12 PM

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