BEIRUT: Lebanon’s tourism industry got a shot in the arm after Saudi Arabia lifted the travel advisory for the country due to the improved security situation and following meetings with Lebanese officials.
“The kingdom lifted its travel ban to Lebanon following the improvement in the security situation, and Saudi nationals have begun making their travel reservations in the country,” Tourism Minister Michel Pharaon told The Daily Star.
Tourism, mainly catering to visitors from the Gulf, has been hit as warnings of possible abductions and other security threats kept Arab tourists away in 2012. The United Arab Emirates and Kuwait issued similar advisories again in 2013.
Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Qatar, Bahrain and the UAE renewed their advisories earlier this year, warning citizens against travel to Lebanon due to the unstable security situation after a spate of bombings in the country.
However, the security plan undertaken by the Interior Ministry succeeded in restoring relative stability to war-ravaged areas, particularly the northern city of Tripoli and regions bordering Syria.
This prompted Saudi Ambassador to Lebanon Ali Awad Asiri to announce on May 2 that his country no longer had a travel advisory in place, urging its citizens to avoid travel to Lebanon.
The ambassador confirmed the decision to lift the travel advisory during an interview with OTV.
Pharaon also confirmed the Saudi reversal of the advisory.
“[They] were encouraged to not visit Lebanon over the past couple of years because of the deterioration of the security situation, but now that it has improved, we have started witnessing some reservations by Saudi nationals with the support of their embassy,” he said.
But hotels interviewed by The Daily Star said accommodationdemand by GCC nationals remained low.
“The demand is very scarce for the time being, and in my opinion, the country needs time to recover,” said Kasper Wigen, marketing and communications manager at Hilton Beirut Metropolitan Palace.
“Even if we assume that they lifted the travel advisory, we won’t see increased bookings on the first day. It is not something we would see in the first day but it is kind of a process, and it needs time,” he said.
He added that the Lebanese market needed to prepare for the return of Saudi tourists to the country.
Wigen expected the market to pick up during Ramadan and for Eid al-Fitr. “What the Saudi ambassador has said today is very promising, and we are happy about it, but we need to see the effect taking place.”
Ayman Nasser al-Dine, sales manager at Hotel Cavalier, said that reservations by GCC nationals were nonexistent for the time being.
“A Kuwaiti visitor came a couple of weeks ago for business, and we were very surprised,” he said.
“He told us that he faced some difficulties coming to Lebanon because their government is discouraging Kuwaitis from visiting the country.”
Dine said that the occupancy over the past two months at Hotel Cavalier had reached 60 percent due to the presence of Iraqis and Syrians.
“They are not even tourists but instead are here for medical or business purposes,” he said.
He said reservations may increase over the coming two weeks but he strongly believed that tourism activity would pick up most in August. “June is not a high season for tourism in Lebanon, and then comes Ramadan. So I expect tourism activity to pick up in August.”
Christina Kiwan, sales manager at Golden Tulip Hotel, said that demand for rooms was very low for the time being.
“Demand is very low now but we expect reservations to improve in the coming month,” he said.
Regarding the travel ban imposed by UAE on Lebanon, Pharaon said that he visited the Emirates a week ago and held talks with Prince Mohammad bin Zayed bin Sultan al-Nahyan to solve this issue. “The interior minister will also be visiting the UAE next week in order to discuss this issue with the concerned parties there.”
Kiwan from the Golden Tulip said her hotel took part in ATM last week, an annual event for travel and tourism professionals in the region.
“We found Emiratis were very interested in coming to Lebanon as many of them visited our booth to ask about room rates,” she said.
Wigen believes that if the emirates and Bahrain follow in Saudi Arabia’s footsteps, then this would surely have a great impact on Lebanon’s tourism season this year. “We hope to see full cooperation from GCC embassies,” he said.