BEIRUT: Lebanon’s hotels were on edge Friday following a series of security incidents as the tourism minister tried to allay the fears of potential tourists.
Addressing participants in the second and final day of the Arab Economic Forum, Michel Pharaon noted that the occupancy rates and bookings for the summer season increased by 15 percent compared to last year.
“I would like to tell you that I have been asking for the past few days about occupancy rates in big hotels and I found out it has reached 100 percent in Phoenicia hotel, 98 percent in Le Grey and Four Seasons hotels and 99 percent in Crown Plaza Hotel,” he said.
Pharaon’s remarks came just minutes after a suicide bomber blew himself up at a police checkpoint on the Beirut-Damascus highway in east Lebanon, killing one police officer and wounding 32 people.
The security forces also rounded up a number of suspects in one of the four star hotels in Hamra Street but later released most of them.
The security forces also temporarily closed a number of main roads in the capital as part of efforts to search for suspected terrorists.
All these developments created a tense atmosphere in the country.
The head of the Hotel Owners’ Association Pierre Ashkar did not conceal his deep concern about the impact of these incidents on the tourism sector.
“In principle, when we have unstable security in a country, the tourism sector will naturally suffer. Any terrorist operation, whether in Lebanon, Egypt or Turkey, will deal a blow to the tourism industry. I can’t tell if these incidents will prompt tourists to cancel their bookings this summer,” he told The Daily Star over the telephone.
Ashkar heaped praise on the security forces that succeeded in foiling a number of terrorist attacks before they happened.
“The pre-emptive measures adopted by the Lebanese Army and security forces have caused relief among the tourists and visitors and I hope they continue these efforts,” he added.
But Ashkar insisted the successful operations of the security forces may not be sufficient to lure back tourists if they were not matched by political stability in the country.
“The first thing we need to do is elect a new president because this will encourage tourists to visit Lebanon,” he added.
Ashkar admitted that most hotels in Lebanon saw a decline of more than 40 percent in business in 2013.
Many hotels have closed several floors or temporarily closed for maintenance in a bid to reduce losses.
Tourism in Lebanon used to represent 18 percent of the country’s GDP but the spate of security incidents and the spillover of the Syrian crisis have drastically reined in this percentage, according to experts.
Pharaon emphasized that the drop in the number of tourists in previous years was due to the negative repercussions of the Syrian crisis and that the coordination between security entities was still in place.
“We can say that although we got some bad news today, the security agreement is still in place,” he said.
The minister added that the adoption of the security plan led to the success of the Live Love Lebanon promotional campaign which his ministry launched this year.
Nabil Itani, chairman and general manager of the Investment Development Authority of Lebanon, advised officials to focus on advanced medical services to entice visitors seeking good medical treatment.
“We are the only country in the world that has 35 doctors for every 10,000 people so this is a 3.5 percent rate which is considered to be unique in the region,” he said. “We also have very high technologies within hospitals in addition to a great number of hospitals and beds, so we should be well approaching this hospitalization tourism. But this needs laws and legislation.”
Itani called upon Parliament to adopt some new decrees that would affect investment in a positive way in sectors that have growth potential.
“We submitted to Cabinet in 2011 a few decrees that are still under study. We hope that Parliament will take them into consideration because we have been adopting the same decrees for the past 12 years,” he said.