Jamal Saidi/Reuters/File
Beachgoers enjoy the warm weather at Ramlet al- Baida beach in Beirut, Lebanon, June 18.

Shadow of Syria takes toll on Lebanon's tourist appeal

Lebanon's economy typically rides a wave of tourism every summer, but Syria's war is scaring off visitors.

With its golden beaches, soaring mountains, Roman ruins, and frenetic nightlife packed into an area two-thirds the size of Maryland, Lebanon has long relied on tourism as an important source of national income, especially from residents of the more conservative Persian Gulf states. 

But rising political and sectarian tensions, a Lebanon travel ban by Gulf countries, and the impact of the war ravaging neighboring Syria have combined to ruin the key summer tourist season.

“I have no work this year. No one is coming. It’s a huge financial loss for me,” says Khodr Hammoud, who runs a small private nightclub in Beirut during the summer months and caters to the needs of wealthy Gulf Arabs.

Gulf Arabs traditionally flock to Lebanon every summer, swapping the searing heat of the desert for Lebanon’s relatively cool mountain air and more permissive lifestyle. Mountain towns such as Aley and Bhamdoun are filled with restaurants and hotels that rely heavily on Gulf visitors, who normally comprise about 65 percent of all tourists.

But earlier this year, six Gulf countries slapped bans on their citizens traveling to Lebanon, citing the worsening security climate – although their hostility toward Lebanon's militant Shiite Hezbollah, which is fighting in Syria on behalf of the regime of Bashar al-Assad, is another factor. Although Lebanon officially follows a policy of neutrality toward the conflict in Syria, the country is split between supporters and opponents of the regime.

Restaurants and nightclubs are reporting a 50 percent decline in business since the beginning of the year. Take a walk through central Beirut and the restaurants that line the cobble-stoned pedestrianized streets near the parliament building are woefully empty. Usually at this time of year they would be filled with tourists from the Gulf, sipping Turkish coffee and smoking water pipes, known as nargileh.

So far this summer, the hotel occupancy rate in Beirut is about 35 percent, and outside the capital it is as low as 5 percent, according to the Lebanese ministry of tourism. Instead of wealthy Gulf tourists enjoying Beirut’s flamboyant nightlife or European visitors exploring Lebanon’s Roman and Phoenician heritage, hotels could soon be filling up with Syrian refugees instead. A report prepared by a group of NGOs in May recommended that struggling rural hotels should house Syrian refugee families at subsidized rates.

“Humanitarian agencies implementing shelter solutions can contract with specific hotels and motels offering to pay some fees in return for hosting refugee families for cheaper prices,” the report said.

According to the United Nation’s High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), there are 604,000 registered Syrians living in Lebanon, although the true number is perhaps twice as much, effectively increasing Lebanon's population by 25 percent.

The cities of Sidon and Tripoli, both of which have a rich historical heritage and visitor appeal, have been marred by violent clashes in recent months. Gunfire, shelling, rockets, and air strikes stray across the border into Lebanon from both the regime and rebel forces. The world-renowned music festival at Baalbek in the Bekaa valley was relocated this year after the town was struck on several occasions by rockets.

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