BEIRUT, Lebanon – Lebanon’s tourism minister said the crucial summer tourism season would not be badly damaged by growing domestic unrest and turmoil in neighbouring Syria, and forecast revenues this year of about $7 billion, similar to last year.
Fadi Abboud shrugged off concern that tourism could take a heavy hit and said he expected 1.8 million visitors this year, despite an almost complete absence of overland travelers.
“I am expecting a season similar to last year. Of course we lost more than 300,000 travelers by road because of the unfortunate conditions in Syria. That travel has basically stopped. But air and sea travel are still fine,” Abboud told Reuters on the sidelines of a news conference on summer tourism.
The tiny Mediterranean country, a top regional vacation spot for wealthy Gulf visitors, suffered a blow when four Gulf Arab countries warned their citizens not to visit Lebanon after clashes erupted there between supporters and opponents of the uprising in neighbouring Syria.
Fighting broke out in the northern port of Tripoli in May and has continued sporadically since, even spilling briefly into the capital, Beirut – the main destination for Gulf tourists.
President Michel Suleiman is currently visiting the Gulf to encourage countries that posted travel warnings – Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Qatar – to revoke them.
His trip shows how important tourism is to Lebanon, especially its Gulf visitors. Tourism makes up around 16 percent of the country’s GDP, and Lebanon’s economic growth has already slowed bedcause of the regional unrest.
“We are expecting a change in the Gulf positions and are working on that. The attitude in Kuwait yesterday and in the UAE today was positive,” Abboud said.
He said tourism revenue increased by 22 percent in the first four months of 2012 from the same period last year in spite of rising violence in Syria, where security forces are trying to crush a 15-month revolt against President Bashar al-Assad.
But if unrest continues, more tourists may stay away. An executive board member of Lebanon’s Middle East Airlines, who spoke alongside Abboud at the tourism conference, said flight reservations dropped 7 to 8 percent in the week after the clashes but soon returned to normal.
Abboud said he expected a similar impact on the industry as a whole. “It had an impact for about a week and then reservations came back,” he said. “We think that is the best indicator we can use.”