BEIRUT: The abduction of two Turkish Airlines pilots could deal the last blow to Lebanon’s ailing tourism sector, caretaker Tourism Minister Fadi Abboud warned over the weekend. “What happened could be the last nail in the coffin of the tourism sector,” Abboud told a local TV station, adding that the incident would have an adverse effect on the wider economy.
Abboud lamented the poor response to the spate of abductions plaguing the country and added that the repercussions of the kidnapping would harm the economy as a whole given that the tourism sector represented more than one-fifth of Lebanon’s GDP.
Pilot Murat Akpinar and his co-pilot Murat Agca were forced out of a shuttle bus at the Cocodi Bridge, less than a kilometer from Beirut’s Rafik Hariri International Airport, after 3 a.m. Friday and taken away by six gunmen, security sources who spoke on condition of anonymity told The Daily Star.
The sources said the gunmen drove off in a silver BMW X3 and a black KIA Picanto after kidnapping the two from the shuttle. The pilots had been headed to their Beirut hotel.
A group calling itself Zuwwar alImam Ali al-Reda has claimed responsibility for the abduction, demanding the release of nine Lebanese Shiites who have been held by Syrian rebels since 2012.
Abboud said the incident came as officials were already attempting to reduce the impact of the existing travel advisories by Gulf countries.
According to experts, visitors from the Gulf previously accounted for nearly 65 percent of tourism spending in Lebanon.
The number of visitors to Lebanon fell by about 6.5 percent during the first half of 2013 compared to the same period last year. In July, the number of tourists was down by 27 percent.
Tourism figures were already sharply down last year, with 1.5 million visitors compared to a peak of 2 million in 2010, the year before Syria’s uprising erupted.
Faced with an immense decline in tourists over the past two years, Lebanese hotels are resorting to discounts and promotions to lure in more visitors from Jordan, Iraq and Syria.
In June, Iraqis topped the list of visitors, comprising 36 percent of tourist arrivals to Lebanon, Tourism Ministry figures show.
“Moreover, the land borders have been shut down and” airfare is rising to Beirut, Abboud said.