Resilient Lebanon attracts tourists, money, glamour

Fri Jun 25, 2010 11:26am EDT
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By Yara Bayoumy

BEIRUT (Reuters Life!) - Two years ago, Lebanon was reeling from a crisis which brought gun battles onto the streets of Beirut, forced its airport to shut, and threatened to pitch the tiny Mediterranean country back into civil war.

Fastforward to 2010: Soaring economic growth, relative calm on its southern border with Israel and a truce between rival politicians have given crisis-ridden Lebanon a window of stability which it is translating into a tourist boom.

Tourism Minister Fadi Abboud said he expects 2.2 million tourists to visit this year, up 25 percent from last year's record, when the sector contributed a quarter of GDP.

Already Arab Gulf tourists fill the capital's five-star hotels, their gas-guzzling Hummers choke Beirut's narrow streets and their Asian staff struggle to carry dozens of shopping bags emblazoned with the names of top international brands.

Beaches brim with bikini-clad, tanned women and come nighttime, clubs host Europe's top DJs who play to audiences of thousands, many of whom are flush with cash from jobs abroad and are happy to spend hundreds of dollars on food, drink and music.

Forty percent of this year's tourist are expected to be Arabs, another 40 percent Europeans and the rest from other parts of the world.

"People are in love with this country," Abboud said in an interview last week. "I'm expecting a very, very good summer. Probably the best in our history."

The ever-present threat of war with Israel, which waged a 34-day conflict against Lebanon's Hezbollah in 2006, does little to dent Abboud's enthusiasm. "Certainly, security is very, very important but even after the war, the day the war finished, people started coming back again," he said.   Continued...

<p>Tourists tour the lower cave of the Jeita Grotto by boat June 12, 2010. REUTERS/Jamal Saidi</p>