Lebanon beckons tourists

Analysts say a peace deal with Israel is a must to lure tourists back the "Switzerland of the Mideast."

With a forest of imposing columns, Baalbek can boast of an acropolis to rival the world's other great depositories of ancient Greek and Roman civilizations. And this ancient town, about an hour and-a-half drive from Beirut, is a natural lure for classicists, history buffs, and other tourists whose idea of a good holiday involves a romp through the ruins.

But unlike those in Baalbek, the ruins that dot much of Lebanon are not so ancient - and the war that caused them not yet fully over. And as Israel last week began dismantling military outposts in south Lebanon, there were great expectations here that peace, or lack of war, at least, will rejuvenate tourism in the country once dubbed "the Switzerland of the Middle East."

From beaches along the Mediterranean coast to skiing in the mountains, Lebanon was once a popular destination for tourists from Europe. It also enjoyed a regular seasonal boon from Arabs looking to trade the brutal summer heat in the oil-rich Gulf countries for the more temperate hills above Beirut.

Today, the road from Beirut to Baalbek, the country's most important tourist destination, is littered with reminders that those tourists are no more. The route takes visitors winding through miles of gloomy ghost towns such as Aley, Hamdoun, and Safir, places where grand hotels, restaurants, and sprawling villas - former summer retreats for the elite of the Arab world - stand hollow as haunted skeletons. Lebanon's 1975-90 civil war all but banished visitors. In 1974, 1.4 million tourists came to Lebanon. Last year there were only 673,000.

Some Lebanese see Israel's promise to withdraw its troops by July - ostensibly putting an end to their daily battles with Hizbullah, the Iranian-backed Muslim militia - as a key to unlocking the door to tourists who are already taking in Israel, Jordan, and Egypt in one trip. Even better, tourism industry officials say, would be a comprehensive peace deal - that includes Syria - which would make it easier for international tour operators to include Lebanon in their "Holy Land" itineraries. [Yesterday, in a rare trip abroad, Syrian President Hafeez al-Assad flew to Cairo for a meeting with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak to discuss Mideast peace.]

"The problem is that people are still afraid to come to Lebanon, because when they turn on the news what they see of Lebanon is shelling," says Raghida Samaha, a tour guide, after she surveyed the day's takers: a mere 7 tourists on a bus that seats 40.

"The rich tourists from the Gulf are not coming anymore and staying like they used to. We're hoping that with a peace settlement, we'll have a big boost in tourism." She adds, pointing out Lebanon's sites of early Christian interest: "They'll visit Lebanon, Jordan, Syria, and Israel in one trip, because Lebanon is part of the Holy Land."

The very mention of Israel as a natural tourism neighbor, until recently a taboo, seems a nod in the direction of the kind of normalization that Middle East peace advocates have long craved. Many cruise-ship tours already include the officially warring countries in one sweep, docking in Syria and Lebanon first, before going on to Haifa in Israel, so as to avoid passport problems.

Just as Jordan and Egypt have enjoyed better relations with the US in the wake of reconciliation with Israel - especially in annual aid packages - Lebanon has hopes of being rewarded for throwing its support behind the peace process.

But Syria, still acting as proxy for Lebanon at the negotiating table, doesn't want Beirut to agree to any separate peace deal with Israel until Damascus first reaches its goal: an Israeli withdrawal from the Golan Heights.

The symbols of Syria's dominance of Lebanon are visible on the tourist trek around the Bekaa Valley - home to Baalbek and its 2,000-year-old temples, but also to Syrian Army camps and Hizbullah strongholds. Snapshots from the bus - portraits of Mr. Assad, soldiers lined up for a morning drill, a field full of Katyusha rocket launchers - could make a discomforting postcard for the less-than-intrepid traveler.

"Everyone thought I was really mad when I said I was coming here," says Nina Gillsvik, a young tourist from Sweden. "They said, 'What are you, crazy? There's a war in Lebanon.' Most people prefer Spain or Greece. And actually, when I saw how much of Beirut was still in ruins, I was shocked."

Indeed, many corners of the Lebanese capital belie the fact that a decade has passed since the end of the civil war. Downtown, a funky palette of new pastel-colored high-rises are still interspersed with the shells of buildings so pocked by gunfire that they look like gray sponges. But many here have been critical of the Disney-like quality of the rebuilt enclaves of Beirut fashioned by Solidere, the Lebanese real estate group founded by Rafik al-Hariri, the construction magnate and former prime minister. That, coupled with news that Solidere is losing money, have fed doubts about Beirut's restoration plans.

At least some investors, however, are sanguine about Beirut's comeback. Several large hotels have recently opened, while others are rising from the rubble with new management from international hotel chains such as Inter-Continental, Marriott, and Meridien.

The Lebanese government spends less than one percent of the national budget on tourism, potentially the history-drenched country's most lucrative product. The tourism industry has been pressing the government to develop a master plan for tourism. One such proposal, being developed by Monitor, a US consultancy group, is supposed to be presented to the prime minister in the next few months. The plans include a much-needed cleanup of beaches and better labeling of archeological sites.

"A lot of hotels are being built and reopening, so someone must be optimistic and they're probably expecting a boom," says Myrna Bustani, the director of the Socit de Hotel de Tourisme. In her family-owned hotel, however, only 50 percent of the rooms are occupied. "That peace in the Middle East will help all of us, including the Israelis. That goes without saying."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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