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Beirut tourists unruffled by recent security incidents

Tourists from the Gulf shop in the Beirut district of Hamra, on Monday, June 23, 2014. (The Daily Star/Mohammad Azakir)

BEIRUT: Seated on a bench at a Beirut cafe, 23-year-old Danish tourist Paw Velling is not bothered by recent security incidents in Lebanon, though that could be partially attributed to his recent travels keeping him away from the news.

Velling arrived in Beirut Monday afternoon to visit a friend studying at the American University of Beirut.

“I figured since my friend has been here for six months it probably isn’t that big of a risk [to visit now],” Velling said, before adding that he was unaware of the recent suicide bombing. “I have been in Greece and didn’t keep up on what was happening.”

Last Friday two security incidents grabbed national headlines as security forces raided hotels in Beirut’s Hamra shopping district and a suicide bomber targeted a well-known police checkpoint.

The fallout led some embassies to call for their citizens to take increased precautions, while others asked their nationals to leave the country immediately.

Abu Ali, 44, a tourist from Iraq, arrived in Lebanon fours days ago right after the security incidents. “There are no problems, hamdullillah,” he told The Daily Star, adding that Lebanon was a beautiful country.

“Daesh [Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria] is [present] in all Arab countries,” Abu Ali said. “All Arab countries are chaotic not just Iraq but inshallah Lebanon and all Arab countries will have peace.”

While tourists and other foreign nationals have taken note of their embassies’ warnings, many told The Daily Star that Friday’s events have not greatly altered their plans.

Three Iraqi men from Baghdad were leaving the Napoleon Hotel in Hamra Monday where the raids took place.

The men said they arrived over the weekend.

“We aren’t worried about any security issues in the hotel or Lebanon in general,” one of them said.

“Embassies have to issue such statements and no one wants to put its population at risk,” said French national Rosalie Berthier, a 20-year old intern at an international nongovernmental organization.

“France always recommends citizens to be careful – except if you go to Switzerland – but I am glad I am not Emirati because I don’t want to leave Lebanon too soon.”

The UAE asked its nationals to leave Lebanon following Friday’s bombing and hotel raids. But despite the UAE travel advisory several tourists from the Arab Gulf were seen on the streets of Beirut, although the majority declined to comment.

“Embassy warnings are always quite exaggerated,” said Will Schomburg, a 25-year old U.K. national, in Lebanon to study Arabic for the summer. “You’ve got to take them with a pinch of salt.”

Friday’s two security instances are the latest in a string of security developments that have hit Lebanon’s tourism sector hard.

Tourism is a significant moneymaker for the Lebanese economy but recent security troubles have caused tourism figures to vastly decline over the last three years. Still, the expats that have chosen to stick around are rather unruffled by the first car bombing since March and the raids on hotels in Hamra, a popular district for tourists.

“What happens doesn’t cross my mind that much or I wouldn’t be here,” Schomburg added. He did, however, maintain that Friday’s incidents altered his travel plans in the country. “We were going to go to Baalbek but were advised against it, and it seems it was good advice,” he said. “We were also going to spend more time in Tripoli but then a few grenades were thrown.”

Seated next to him, fellow U.K. national James Hartley, a 24-year-old here on holiday, said that these events weren’t enough to make him leave ahead of schedule. “My impression as a British foreigner is that I don’t feel like a target, so it is not that much of a threat.”

In fact many foreign nationals from the West said they don’t feel directly in harm’s way and are therefore not deeply disturbed by recent security incidents.

“I didn’t feel it was different than events in the past because bombings are mostly taking place in places I don’t really go,” said 27-year-old Sam Sweeney, an American studying at Université Saint Joseph. Sweeney said he saw the raid in Hamra as positive because it showed that security forces were “catching things before they happen.”

“[Security incidents] don’t affect my decision to live here and I don’t think they will unless kidnapping foreigners happens again like it did in the 80s,” said Steve Brooks, a 31-year-old American who has been living and studying Arabic in Beirut for the last year.

Unlike some Westerners, Brooks followed Friday’s developments closely and said that while they didn’t deeply concern him, it would be easier to hold an opinion if reports weren’t so varied.

“There are mixed stories about who the suspects were,” he said. “I don’t know how to feel. If there are between 17 and 30 [ISIS] operatives in Lebanon and 30 got in [the country] that’s definitely a bad thing.”

Despite concerns, most foreigners interviewed chose to remain calm over such episodes, especially after experiencing a string of incidents earlier in the year.

“Friday’s bombing had little – if any – impact on my behavior,” said Berthier, the intern from France. “When I first arrived in January there were bombings almost every week. It was part of daily life.”

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on June 24, 2014, on page 3.

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Summary

Last Friday two security incidents grabbed national headlines as security forces raided hotels in Beirut's Hamra shopping district and a suicide bomber targeted a well-known police checkpoint.

Abu Ali, 44, a tourist from Iraq, arrived in Lebanon fours days ago right after the security incidents.

The UAE asked its nationals to leave Lebanon following Friday's bombing and hotel raids.

Friday's two security instances are the latest in a string of security developments that have hit Lebanon's tourism sector hard.

Tourism is a significant moneymaker for the Lebanese economy but recent security troubles have caused tourism figures to vastly decline over the last three years.

"What happens doesn't cross my mind that much or I wouldn't be here," Schomburg added. He did, however, maintain that Friday's incidents altered his travel plans in the country.

In fact many foreign nationals from the West said they don't feel directly in harm's way and are therefore not deeply disturbed by recent security incidents.


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