BEIRUT: As Lebanon’s tourism industry faces a third dismal season in a row in the face of regional and local turmoil, the new tourism minister is looking to expand beyond the traditional Gulf tourists.
Among Michel Pharaon’s wide-range of plans to give a needed boost to a sector that is estimated to make up 20 percent of the Lebanese economy is to focus on drawing in a new class of travelers: medical tourists.
“In Lebanon, we have professionals in the health care industry that can bring in tourists from Yemen, Iraq, Libya and Algeria,” the minister said.
“We have a committee working hard on that, and there is a conference that will take place soon on this subject matter, but we are currently working on bringing all actors together,” he added.
“A good number of Iraqis are coming to Lebanon for medical reasons,” he said.
“Health tourism has good potential for the country.”
The need to attract tourists from beyond the traditional Gulf markets is especially important GCC states maintain their travel warnings on Lebanon, which Pharaon is working to get removed in the coming months.
“We are working hard on lifting the travel ban to Lebanon imposed by the GCC countries on their nationals and we are trying to get positive results on this matter,” Pharaon told The Daily Star.
“But the outcome will become clear in a few weeks.”
Tourism in Lebanon has been hit as travel warnings over possible abductions and other security threats has kept Gulf tourists away for the past several years.
Warnings from several GCC states were issued in 2012, and the United Arab Emirates and Kuwait gave similar advice again in 2013.
The minister said the travel advisories were political in nature, attributable to the stance of the previous administration on regional conflicts, including the Syrian war.
“Some of the political stances taken by the Foreign Ministry and the previous government are related to this ban,” he said. “The ban is also due to security issues.”
However, Pharaon is optimistic about the positive effect of the new Cabinet formation on the security situation, and its eventual contribution to rebuilding tourism.
“The government provides a cover for the security forces to do their jobs,” he said.
“There is also a better coordination between security forces and the Army in addition to a better coordination with Arab and foreign allies which had some dialogue problems with the previous government,” he added.
Despite the security situation in the country, rocked over the last year by a series of bombings related to the ongoing conflict in neighboring Syria, Pharaon seeks to highlight the relative safety throughout much of Lebanon.
“We would like to remind everybody that around 70 percent of areas in Lebanon have not witnessed a gunshot for the past 20 years,” he said.
The demographics of the tourists in Lebanon have changed in the last several years, and Pharaon sees room for growth by targeting less traditional markets for advertising.
The number of tourists to Lebanon dropped by 6.69 percent in 2013 compared with 2012, while European visitors topped the list ahead of Arabs for the first time in years.
While the number tourists from the Gulf dropped, Pharaon says that other Arab markets are ripe with potential.
“We are currently zooming in on Jordanians, Iranians, Egyptians and Iraqi tourists by studying ticket fares to attract tourists from these destinations to Lebanon,” he said.
“We are trying to see how the Middle East Airlines can assist us on this matter, but we will definitely start with this before the beginning of the summer.”
Pharaon added that the ministry was also working closely with non-governmental organizations to promote new touristic areas in Lebanon.