Lebanon’s tourism minister believes the country may be able to convince Gulf and European states to formerly lift travel bans on their citizens visiting.
Michel Pharaon said that while states were not yet ready to formally lift the bans, which have had a crippling effect on Lebanon’s tourism industry, they were privately accepting that the country was now safe to travel to again.
“At one point in time there was a non-official travel ban, then it became official. Now there is a non-official lift of the travel ban,” he told Executive in an interview at his Beirut office.
“It is the same for some Europeans, which unofficially are lifting [the ban]. When the ambassadors are contacted they all say ‘yes, you can come’ but they still have the travel ban for the general public. This is the situation now,” he added. While Pharaon said he was working on convincing states to formally lift the bans, he would not give a specific time-frame.
In June 2012, following the kidnapping of a number of Gulf citizens, the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, Qatar and Bahrain advised their citizens to avoid all travel to Lebanon. This was later followed by Saudi Arabia, while European and Western states have gradually increased their travel warnings as well.
At the time of the initial bans the then-tourism minister Fadi Abboud was unconcerned, but the negative effect has been pronounced. As Syria’s civil war has continued to bleed over the border, the country has seen a number of car bombs, while clashes have intensified in Tripoli and other cities.
In 2013, just 1.3 million tourists visited the country, down from a peak of 2.1 million in 2010. Numerous hotels have closed, while major projects targeted at those in the Gulf have been cancelled. Late last year, the president of the Association of Hotel Owners said that all hotels were under threat due to the terrible climate. To cap off a terrible period for Lebanese hotels and restaurants, an unusually warm winter saw the skiing season all but cancelled.
Yet the emergence of a new unity government, formed in February, has raised hopes of improving security. Pharaon stressed that the rival March 8 and March 14 political groupings had agreed to put aside their political disputes and focus on keeping the country safe.
“This security agreement [is bigger than] political differences. Immediately [after being formed] the government began working on a security plan and we saw how it succeeded in Tripoli and in the Bekaa,” he said, referring to new crackdowns by the military on armed groups in those areas. “It is holding because the security agreement [is more important than] political differences.”
In a open plea to foreigners to return to Lebanon he added, “we guarantee the security of tourists.”
The full interview with the Minister can be read as part of a special report on tourism in Executive’s May issue, out next Wednesday.