Lebanon: Bye Bye Tourists
By: Mouhamad Wehbe
Published Wednesday, August 22, 2012
The security situation dominated headlines all summer long, and after travel warnings from Gulf countries is response to clashes and the recent kidnapping spree, tourism in Lebanon is dwindling rapidly.
The repercussions of the series of events – starting in early May and continuing until today – will very likely cause instability and increase the probability of a dramatic collapse in the security situation in Lebanon.
The events taking place are more complicated and deeper than being merely a set of local events detached from the situation in the region. The period between May and August demonstrates a direct link to the crisis in Syria, which began in March 2011.
It was inevitable that the Syrian crisis would have a dramatic impact on Lebanon. That was the consensus from observers, and their predictions are getting bleaker.
Few, however, calculated the risk of a quick political reaction from the Gulf countries, the main source of tourists in Lebanon. Warnings issued by Qatar, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, and Kuwait asking their citizens to leave Lebanon immediately were knockout blows to the summer season in the country.
The May clashes in the North were followed by the abduction of 11 Lebanese pilgrims in Syria by a group claiming to be a faction of the Free Syrian Army (FSA).
The five Gulf countries responded by issuing travel warnings to their citizens about visiting Lebanon. The announcement was enough to stop the summer season in its tracks.
The message was primarily for Gulf nationals in or planning to travel to Lebanon. The warning also affected non-citizens in the Gulf, especially Lebanese expatriates, who are a major part of the annual summer tourist season.
The travel warnings from the Gulf were widely taken as an early warning of the impending situation in Lebanon.
This automatically led to a series of cancellations of flights, hotel and furnished apartment reservations, car rentals, etc. People who had already arrived decided to leave quickly.
It was not long before trade associations began protesting that consumption rates had fallen by around 75 percent in the 10 days following the events in the North.
Then they began panicking that the Lebanese economy is about to go bust, that their businesses cannot continue under these circumstances.
Visitor statistics clearly indicated a steady decline. While the number of visitors to the country declined by just 0.9 percent in May (compared to May 2011), it dropped by 11.6 in June, and 28.5 in July. Rates for visiting expatriates by land, sea, and air also dropped by 16.8 percent in July.
The first half of the season is over, but the owners of commercial, entertainment, and food and beverage establishments were hoping that the second half, which begins with Eid al-Fitr, would be better.
In the last week of Ramadan, however, horrifying stories of the kidnappings of Syrians by armed gangs spread across the country.
The FSA had kidnapped a young Lebanese man living in Syria belonging to the Mokdad family, so his family retaliated by kidnapping a number of Syrians to exchange for their son.
The Mokdad clan’s kidnapping operation, broadcast live on television all day Wednesday, revealed the complete absence of the Lebanese state.
Kidnapping threats against Gulf nationals and diplomatic missions prompted the Saudi embassy to ask its citizens to leave immediately. Qatar declared that it will expel all Lebanese living on its soil if any of its citizens are abducted.
The first reaction was a wave of cancellations in flight reservations, reaching 8 percent on Wednesday and Thursday, according to the head of travel and tourism agencies union.
The deputy head of the restaurants and coffeeshops union Khaled Nazha says that tourism suffers from a domino effect. If the tourist season is hit at its beginning, the whole season would be damaged.
He adds that everyone is worried “of entering a dark period, due to the events in the region. This is made worse by opposing media campaigns and retaliatory kidnappings.”
“There is no doubt that the situation in Syria is having a huge impact. We no longer see Iraqis, Turks, Jordanians, or even Syrians who used to regularly visit by land,” he explains.
The kidnappings sparked a wave of road closures, most critically those leading to the airport and the al-Masnaa border crossing with Syria.
The situation was summed up by the head of the furnished apartment owners union, Ziad Labban. He says they had “hoped the situation will get better after Ramadan. But the events of last week led to a 60 percent drop in reservations.”
“We support the families of the kidnapped, but closing the airport road has had a very negative impact on tourism,” he explains.
14 percent is the rate of decline in visitors to Lebanon in the first seven months of 2012; the number fell to 871,000 from 993,000 in the same period in 2011.
3,500 is the number of beds in the 88 licenced furnished apartment establishments which are registered in the tourism ministry. Eid al-Fitr reservations reached 35 percent, with a 60 percent cancellation rate.
This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.