BEIRUT: The recent kidnappings of two Turkish pilots will weigh heavily on Lebanon’s tourism sector, which has already lost $40 million in revenues during the Eid al-Fitr holiday, industry experts told The Daily Star. However, other ventures between Lebanon and Turkey are unlikely to be affected in the short term, experts say.
“To have hotel cancellations, you need to have reservations first,” Jean Beiruti, secretary-general of the Hotel Owners Association, told The Daily Star when asked if the kidnapping of the pilots Friday had resulted in tourists canceling their stays.
Echoing Tourism Minister Fadi Abboud, who deemed the incident as “one of many nails in the sector’s coffin,” Beiruti said the fact that the incident took place on the Airport Road was particularly catastrophic for the industry.
Despite discounts of up to 40 percent in Beirut hotels, he said, they had failed to attract more tourists during the holiday, with occupancy rates down compared to the same period last year.
Most reservations, he added, were restricted to only two or three nights.
In previous years, hotel occupancy reached full capacity for almost two weeks over the Eid al-Fitr period. This year, hotels were at 70 percent capacity for just two days. This alone amounts to at least a $40 million decline in revenues, Beiruti estimated.
Lebanese hotels and resorts have traditionally depended on wealthy Gulf Arab tourists, but such this has dried up due to several travel bans on Lebanon following a series of kidnappings in 2012.
Beiruti said the tourism sector’s contribution to gross domestic product could halve from more than $8 billion in 2009 and 2010 to less than $4 billion by the end of this year.
“This is no less than a tsunami washing away the sector. There is no tourism in Lebanon this year,” he said. “While neighboring countries invest billions of dollars to create a tourism sector ... [security breaches and political deadlocks] are destroying ours.”
Despite Lebanese authorities taking measures to protect Turkish interests in the country, Ankara kept the Turkish Trade Center and the Turkish Cultural Center in Downtown closed Monday.
Turkish Airlines, the carrier for which the abducted pilots worked, is now operating from their Rafik Hariri airport offices instead of their premises in Beirut Central District.
Turkish Ambassador to Lebanon Inan Ozyildiz told local media that the decision to close the centers was made after pilot Murat Akpinar and his co-pilot Murat Agca were kidnapped on their way to Beirut.
Akpinar and Agca were forced out of a hotel shuttle bus at the Cocodi Bridge, less than a kilometer from Beirut’s Rafik Hariri International Airport, just after 3 a.m. and taken away by six gunmen, said security sources who spoke on condition of anonymity.
Yet despite the tension in Lebanese-Turkish ties following the incident, business cooperation between the two countries seemed to have escaped immediate damage.
A Turkish powership, meant to boost Lebanon’s electricity production, arrived Tuesday at the Jiyye area south of Beirut. A source close to the Turkish operator Karadeniz Holding declined to comment on whether the company was taking additional security precautions to protect the employees on board the two ships.
Whether the kidnapping will prompt the Turkish Petroleum Company (TPAO) to reconsider its joint bid with Royal Dutch Shell in the first offshore gas licensing round is also unclear. TPAO prequalified as one of 34 nonoperators for that round.
The TPAO representative coordinating the company’s Lebanese bid, Besim Sisman, was unavailable to comment when contacted at company’s headquarters in Ankara.
Waji al-Bizri, the chairman of the Turkish-Lebanese Business Council, said he had not observed any immediate commercial consequences stemming from the kidnapping yet, but noted that most Turkish companies have Lebanese representatives rather than fully staffed offices in the country.
The volume of bilateral trade between Turkey and Lebanon was worth about $1 billion in 2012, Bizri said, only 20 percent of which were Lebanese exports to Turkey.
“We hope that there will not be a drastic reaction,” Bizri told The Daily Star. “At the same time, we are worried that the political situation in the country keeps getting worse. We are going from one problem to another. First, the Gulf countries started boycotting Lebanon and now we’re afraid that Turkey will boycott Lebanon.”
Travel warnings by Gulf states were chiefly responsible for the sharp decline in tourism which left many businesses struggling to break even and pay off loans.
“Luckily Lebanese banks are being flexible regarding loans given to the sector and they are hesitant to push some businesses to bankruptcy,” Beiruti said.
Many businesses in mountain summer resorts across the country had not opened this year, he said when asked if he was expecting many businesses to close down.
Head of the Furnished Apartments Owners, Ziad Labban, echoed Beiruti and estimated that the sector’s occupancy plummeted by 30 percent this year to less than 50-55 percent.
He said cancelations did take place in the past few days but could not give exact figures. “The situation continues to become worse and worse and even Lebanese expats are not showing up as much as they did before,” he said.
A group representing tourism-related businesses in Lebanon said Monday swift steps were needed to remedy the problems facing the sector. Their appeal to caretaker Prime Minister Najib Mikati came in the form of an open letter from Beiruti.
He said an upcoming meeting would focus on the possibility of opening new markets and ways to develop effective mechanisms in order to avoid a further decline in the tourism sector.
“We feel that [the tourism sector] has become neglected, screaming in a valley without an echo,” the letter said.