Sarkis laments loss of $3 billion in tourism revenues to instability


BEIRUT – Lebanon lost nearly $3 billion in revenue due to the sharp drop in the number of tourists in 2007, Tourism Minister Joe Sarkis said on Thursday. “We were expecting 1.6 million visitors in 2006 and the same number in 2007 and this would have generated gross revenue of nearly $3 billion a year,” Sarkis told The Daily Star.

The minister blamed frequent security incidents and the political deadlock for the drop in the number of tourists.

He added that the opposition sit-in near the Grand Serail has also caused a feeling of apprehension among Arab tourists and investors.

The minister regretted the decision of Bahrain and Saudi Arabia to issue advisories to their citizens against travel to Lebanon in light of the situation.

Tourism has suffered numerous setbacks since the assassination of former Premier Rafik Hariri in February 2005 and the ensuing security incidents.

The year 2004 recorded the highest number of tourists traveling to Lebanon with more than 1.3 million visitors, mainly from oil-rich Gulf states.

“This is not the only problem. More than $800 million worth of investments in the tourism sector were suspended in 2007,” Sarkis said.

He added that there were many plans to build hotels in Beirut and the surrounding mountains in 2006 and 2007.

Arab investors have either pulled out of Lebanon or suspended all projects until the election of a new president.

The head of the Investment Development Authority for Lebanon, Nabil Itani, has warned that Arab investors will not make any new commitments here in 2008 if the political crisis does not come to a quick end.

The minister said that Lebanon did not have the chance to catch its breath and make up for the sharp drop in the number of tourists in the past three years.

“We were also pinning high hopes in 2006 but then the war [with Israel] came in July and dashed all our aspirations,” Sarkis said.

He noted that in the first six months of 2006 the number of visitors to Lebanon had exceeded expectations.

“Arab tourists who just arrived to Lebanon in July 2006 packed up their luggage in a hurry after the start of the war,” Sarkis recalled.

He added that less than 1 million visitors arrived in Lebanon in 2007 and this figure was below the expectations of the Tourism Ministry.

In November and December 2007 around 100,000 tourists visited Lebanon but most of these visitors were Lebanese expatriates working in the Gulf.

“The last two months of last year saved the tourism season although most of these visitors were Lebanese who held double passports,” Sarkis said.

He added that the ministry considers any arrival to the country a tourist, even if the person is a Lebanese citizen, because it is difficult to tell who is a tourist and who is not.

But the minister admitted that Lebanese expatriates usually spend their summer vacations with their families here.

“Only Arab and foreign tourists stay in hotels during their visit to Lebanon,” Sarkis said.

He added that hotel occupancy fell to less than 50 percent in 2007, although a few hotels in Beirut managed to fill more than 70 percent of their rooms in the summer.

However, Sarkis said that Lebanon can still draw more tourists in 2008 even if the political deadlock remains.

“Even if we did not have a president this year, we can draw more tourists as long as there are no closure of roads or assassinations and bombings,” Sariks said, adding that his ministry is planning a wide media campaign to encourage tourists to visit Lebanon.

“This country has the ability to attract 3.5 million visitors a year if our problems come to an end,” Sarkis said, adding that Lebanon can’t draw more visitors due to the country’s limited infrastructure.