June 2, 2008 / 12:17 AM / in 9 years

Lebanon back on track as top tourist spot

BEIRUT (Reuters) - Just a week after feuding Lebanese leaders sealed a political deal to end 18 months of conflict, restaurants have re-opened, hotel bookings have soared and tourists have replaced gunmen on the streets of Beirut.

<p>Lebanese people release white balloons in Martyr's Square in Central Beirut to celebrate an agreement by Lebanese politicians, ending the worst conflict since the civil war, May 21, 2008. Just a week after feuding Lebanese leaders sealed a political deal to end 18 months of conflict, restaurants have re-opened, hotel bookings have soared and tourists have replaced gunmen on the streets of Beirut. REUTERS/ Steve Crisp</p>

“The deal has had an excellent impact. We’ve had a flood of reservations and we’re expecting a very good season,” said Nizar Alouf, a member of the Lebanese Hotel Owners Association.

It took months of agonizing negotiations -- punctuated by bouts of violence that many feared would trigger civil war -- to install a new president and form a government, but record time for Lebanon to regain its standing as a top tourist spot.

Now where an opposition tent city occupied large squares, paralyzing central Beirut and turning it into a ghost town, restaurants are bustling, open-air concerts are being held and gridlock traffic is back.

“It’s good to be back” and “It finally feels like people are living” are common utterances among the droves of Lebanese and tourists crowding the Parisian-style pavement cafes.

Tourism Minister Joseph Sarkis said he expected between 1.3 million to 1.6 million visitors to Lebanon this year compared to around 1 million in 2007 and 2006 -- violent years plagued by political assassinations, bombings and a war with Israel.

“After the (presidential) election, things are much better regarding tourism activity this summer ... which is due to the stability in the coming time,” Sarkis told Reuters on Wednesday.

President Michel Suleiman was elected on Sunday after the seat remained vacant since November, as part of a political crisis between the U.S.-backed government and the opposition, led by Syrian- and Iranian-backed Hezbollah.

Suleiman’s election was part of a package deal agreed upon by the bitter rivals in Doha, leading the opposition to remove its encampment in central Beirut after it was guaranteed veto power in the new government.

GULF TOURISTS

Tourism accounted for about a fifth of Lebanon’s gross domestic product before the industry was destroyed by the 1975-90 civil war. Industry experts say the sector could grow to form up to 12 percent of the economy were Lebanon to enjoy a protracted period of calm.

<p>Fans watch as Lebanese singer Nancy Ajram performs during a festival for Lebanon's newly-elected President Michel Suleiman in downtown Beirut May 28, 2008. REUTERS/ Jamal Saidi</p>

While Lebanese are cautious about whether the new political agreement will last for long, tourists are thronging to the country, judging by hotel bookings and airplane reservations.

“Reservations have picked up very fast ... once we had the deal we covered our loss of 10 percent and gained 20 percent of bookings in flights to Lebanon,” said Nizar Khoury, head of commercial at Lebanon’s flagship Middle East Airlines.

Khoury said he expected a 20 percent increase in passengers to Lebanon from last year’s 450,000 to 500,000.

“The reservations are picking up day by day, so it could even be 30 to 40 percent up,” he told Reuters. “There was some hesitation from Europe and North America, but now we’re seeing a lot of reservations from (there).”

<p>Fireworks explode over al-Amin mosque to celebrate the election of General Michel Suleiman as the new president in down town Beirut May 25, 2008. REUTERS/Jamal Saidi</p>

Saudi Arabia and other Gulf countries, whose citizens make up the bulk of Lebanon’s tourists, had urged their nationals to refrain from traveling to the liberal Mediterranean country at the height of the crisis.

But Khoury said airplane reservations from those countries were picking up fast too.

Lebanon, whose economy is expected to grow more than 3 percent this year because of the deal, is one of the most popular destinations in the Middle East for Arabs seeking its relaxed atmosphere, sandy beaches and mild weather.

“As of today, we’ve seen a 30 percent increase in hotel bookings from 2007 and we expect that this will increase day by day,” said the Lebanese Hotel Owners Association’s Alouf who is also the general manager of the Hotel Riviera in Beirut.

Festivals of performing arts such as the famed Beiteddine festival are also due to be held this summer, having faced repeated cancellations in recent years.

In the meantime downtown Beirut is regenerating its image as a smart area rebuilt from civil war ruins by slain former Prime Minister Rafik al-Hariri.

Bilal Daya, supervisor of Kiub’s restaurant in central Beirut, had like many other central Beirut cafes, tried to stay open a few months into the protest before eventually closing.

“We used to get two or three tables a day, now it’s always crowded,” he said. “At night there’s no place to sit, you have to wait.”

Editing by Nadim Ladki, Tom Perry and Mary Gabriel

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