BEIRUT: The tourism sector has seen a significant improvement over the past few weeks, experts told The Daily Star, as Gulf Cooperation Council states seem to have eased travel warnings that have discouraged their citizens from visiting Lebanon for more than a year.
Hotel occupancy rates have risen consistently to over 60 percent following Tammam Salam’s appointment as prime minister from between 28 to 50 percent before March, Pierre Achkar, head of the Hotel Owners Association, told The Daily Star.
He said occupancy rates had reached 82 percent for a brief period during this month, which was a very good indicator, and that similar figures had not been reached in 18 months.
“The hotel business is like a stock market. When the political situation improves like what happened upon the appointment of Salam, you automatically see an improvement in the occupancy rates and the whole tourism industry,” he said.
However, Achkar estimated that hotel room prices remained 40 percent below their pre-2011 rates, back when Lebanon’s tourism sector was booming.
Speaking this week to a delegation of visitors from the Al-Iktissad Wal-Aamal business conference group, the Saudi ambassador to Lebanon was upbeat about the return of his country’s investors and tourists to Lebanon.
“I am relieved and ready to encourage Saudi businessmen in the [Arab Economic Forum]. ... There is improvement in the general climate, and more improvement in political and security conditions would encourage tourists, particularly GCC citizens, to spend their vacations in Lebanon.”
UAE-based Air Arabia, the largest low-cost carrier in the Middle East and North Africa, announced Wednesday it was increasing its services between Sharjah and Beirut to 14 flights a week from nine, signaling an increase in demand for travel to Lebanon.
Beirut Rafik Hariri International Airport sources told The Daily Star there was an estimated 20 percent increase in the number of tourists coming to Lebanon since Salam’s posting.
Rotana Hotels’ three properties in Lebanon – Gefinor Rotana, Raouche Arjaan and Tamar Rotana – saw an increase in bookings and demand in the past few weeks, a spokesperson for the hotels said.
“This is somehow associated with the events done by the NGOs [non-governmental organizations], conferences and exhibitions such as Horeca and Project Lebanon,” they added.
But it was too early to predict what the summer would be like, especially considering that during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan occupancy falls significantly, the hotel representative added.
The tourism sector has greatly declined in the past two years. The number of tourists entering Lebanon in the first quarter of 2013 decreased 12.5 percent to 274,663 from 313,854 tourists a year earlier. In comparison to 2011, the decline was around 20 percent.
In March, the profitability of Beirut’s hotel industry fell 34.9 percent according to a RevPAR indicator, which is calculated by multiplying a hotel’s average daily room rate by its occupancy rate. That was the largest decrease in the region, STR Global said in a report published Thursday.