When Beirut and Boom Do Not Mean Tourism

BEIRUT ~ Breakfast at an upmarket hotel in the Lebanese capital begins at 6:30am. Nearly three quarters of an hour later, the tables are still set and pristine, the buffet untouched.

“There is no one,” the restaurant manager said, shaking his head.

Beirut should be buzzing, if only with expatriates returning to holiday in their homeland. But traffic flows freely in the city’s normally clogged streets, and foreign pedestrians are few and far between.

Anyone on foot is fair game for the many empty taxis that cruise the streets, touting for business by double tooting their horns.

Starbucks in the city’s central business district must be the global coffee chain’s sole outlet in which the staff sometimes sit at outdoor tables waiting for customers.

The expensive high-rise area of Beirut, rebuilt after it was devastated during the 1975-1990 civil war, should be thronged with well-heeled Gulf Arabs dispensing their dollars. It is not.

Flights into Rafiq Hariri International Airport are landing more than half empty at the start of what should be the country’s lucrative tourism season. But for the second year running, visitors are choosing to go elsewhere.

Swimwear can now be bought for up to 70 percent discount from some stores at a time when prices should be premium.

“We are in freefall,” Tourism Ministry director general Nada Sardouk said. “The assassinations, the bombings, the fighting in Nahr al-Bared and the continued political crisis have badly affected tourism.

“In May 2006, the number of arrivals to Lebanon was 109,441 while in May 2007 it was only 72,676. So we are down 33 percent,” she said, adding that the summer season “will most probably be very difficult.”

After nightfall the army mounts snap vehicle checkpoints, in addition to those that are semi-permanent, in a high-profile display of security that causes the capital’s only traffic tailbacks.

The continuing siege of Fatah al-Islam militants in the Palestinian refugee camp of Nahr al-Bared north of Lebanon’s second city of Tripoli and a series of deadly bombings in and around Beirut since the standoff began on May 20 have created a pervasive sense of unease.

On May 23, 16 people were wounded by a bomb at the predominantly Druze town of Aley in the mountains east of the capital, traditionally a haven for vacationing Gulf Arabs.

“Tourism is vital to Lebanon, and without it the economy simply atrophies,” said Beirut-based Middle East analyst Ed Blanche.

Many Lebanese fear for the future.

When parliamentarian Walid Eido was killed on June 13 by a car bomb in the seafront area of mainly Muslim west Beirut, members of the anti-Syrian majority blamed Damascus, an accusation Syria denied.

Now the government has set August 5 for by-elections to replace Beirut deputy Eido and industry minister Pierre Gemayel, the MP for Metn who was shot dead last November in another killing blamed on Syria.

Beirutis wonder what could happen between now and then, especially as the anniversary looms of the 2006 34-day war with Israel, which erupted last July 12 after Hezbollah seized two Israeli soldiers in a cross-border raid.

“It is a disaster. There are no tourists to buy our products and even the Lebanese don’t feel comfortable spending money on unnecessary things,” said Nadine Zayat, who manages a shop on Beirut’s famous Hamra Street.

“We have been losing business since the war. Many shops, restaurants and cafes have closed,” she said. “If I do not work, I do not buy from the grocer, who in turn cannot send his son to school. We can’t go on like this.”

Syria withdrew its troops from Lebanon in 2005 after dominating its smaller neighbor for 29 years. The pull-out came amid international condemnation after the assassination in February that year of former prime minister Rafiq Hariri.

But Syrian influence remains strong.

Politically, Lebanon has been paralyzed since November, when six pro-Damascus ministers resigned, saying the cabinet had torpedoed the power-sharing arrangements in force since the civil war.

With Eido’s murder, the ruling majority has now seen its margin eroded to a five-seat majority in the 126-member parliament.

Last month the UN Security Council adopted a resolution imposing a tribunal to try suspects in Hariri’s murder. It came into force automatically on June 10, yet another factor adding to the growing sense of foreboding.

“Two million-plus visitors should have been coming here this summer, but last year’s war, the ongoing political crisis and the endless bombings have produced an environment too perilous for all but the hardiest tourist,” said analyst Blanche.

At night, as cars negotiate the increasing number of security checks, some pavement cafes still do good business, although the more expensive restaurants catering for high-rolling visitors remain deserted.

“Beirut may be empty compared to other times, but it’s not a dead city,” insisted Karim Daher, an unemployed father of three.

Despite the uncertainties clouding their horizon, the young people of Beirut still love to party. They just wish more tourists would come to join them.

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