Lebanon as a tourist destination? After a decade and a half of ruinous civil war, the idea seems far-fetched. But true to form, Lebanese entrepreneurs are looking for ways to make money again from foreign visitors.
TOURISM WAS ONCE Lebanon's main foreign exchange earner alongside banking. The civil war put paid to that. But, remarkably, the leisure economy is beginning to stir again. At the Place des Martyrs in Beirut, for example, close to the Green Line which divided the warring Muslim and Christian factions, there are signs that better days may be ahead. In the midst of the charred skeletons of buildings, one entrepreneur has erected a few sunshades courtesy of Coca Cola, added brashly coloured chairs and is once again in business.
This may be a small symbol of an improving future. While the government has little money to spend on the tourist infrastructure, the private sector is prepared to be more active. For the first time in many years, Lebanon had a presence at ITB, the Berlin-based annual exhibition which is the most important even after London's World Travel Market in the international tourist industry calendar.
Nicolas Fatouch, Lebanon's minister of tourism, was delighted at the results. "Everyone was pleased to see us back", he said, "We received much support. We are very hopeful for the future."
At present, arrivals are mainly Lebanese who have settled in the United States and Canada, or have carved new careers for themselves in neighboring countries. Anyone who has been away for any length of time will be shocked and saddened at the mayhem and devastation that is so obvious.
The road blocks outside the airport are still manned, the huge paintings of the ayatollahs are still evident and the tanks remain in place. Yet side by side near the airport, two well-appointed hotels, the Summerland and Coral Beach, are open and flourishing. On the road to the city centre, open air markets are attracting business and there is a genuine air of activity.
Lebanon certainly has much to offer the tourist. Nasser Safieddine, the director-general of the National Council of Tourism, points out that in the last year before the civil war tourism was responsible for 18.5% of the country's GNP. "Our major clients were Arabs," he says," and the average length of stay in the summer was 42 days. Circumstances have changed, but tourists are returning and in April a 37-strong Swiss Choir performed, and they will be followed in September by the Stuttgart...