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Gulf tourists flee in face of air strikes
Thousands of tourists evacuated Lebanon through the Syrian border on Thursday after Israel blockaded the country's ports and launched a debilitating air strike that left Beirut International Airport inoperable for at least 48 hours. Gulf nationals - the engines of Lebanon's recently revitalized tourism sector - lead the exodus, loading into private cars and buses provided by various embassies of Gulf Cooperation Council countries to make their way to Masnaa, the last remaining exit out of the country.
Tourism Minister Joe Sarkis said the Israeli-Hizbullah clashes would have 'catastrophic' consequences for the tourism industry, whose revenues currently account for 9 percent of GDP compared to 20 percent before the Civil War.
"Unfortunately tourists have been going to Syria by taxi since the airport closed," Sarkis said during an emergency meeting with representatives of the tourism industry on Thursday. "The airport should be crowded with tourists this time of year."
Sarkis had expected 1.6 million tourists in Lebanon this year - a strong recovery from the stagnant summer season in 2005 following the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. The number of visitors had already increased by 50 percent during the first six months of 2006 to reach an "unprecedented" 631,000.
"The situation could lead to its [the sector's] bankruptcy and closure, and could cause the dismissal of 300,000 employees," Sarkis said in a statement released by the ministry.
Judging by the Beirut Central District - whose cafes and restaurants were teeming with Gulf tourists rooting for Saudi Arabia in the World Cup a few weeks ago - the consequences of the fighting will reverberate across the hospitality industry. The Lebanese Army stood guard in front of barricades blocking access to the Downtown area and many of the bars lining Gemmayzeh did not open. Even Beirut's perpetually bustling Corniche was free of traffic - both human and otherwise.
Paul Ariss, president of the Lebanese Syndicate of Restaurant, Cafe, and Hotel Owners, told The Daily Star that a marketing and advertising plan had been devised at Thursday's meeting with Sarkis to help tourism and hospitality businesses recover from the crisis.