Lebanese tourist season could be a ray of light amid gloom
BEIRUT - Ibrahim Zeeb is visiting Lebanon for the first time in years and says it's the food he has missed most.
"The best breakfast we'll find anywhere is here," said Zeeb as he waited with his children at Beirut airport for a relative flying in to join them from Saudi Arabia.
Lebanon is hoping for its best tourist season since 2010, thanks to a rise in European visitors and a return of Saudis, whose government lifted a travel warning this year.
Once a mainstay of Lebanon's economy, tourism has been in the doldrums since 2011 when conflict erupted in neighbouring Syria.
Political disputes in Lebanon and travel warnings against Gulf Arabs flying to the Mediterranean country have added to the industry's woes.
This year's promising season marks a rare ray of light in an otherwise gloomy outlook for Lebanon's economy which is struggling with massive public debt after years of low growth.
In the first half of 2019 the number of Saudi visitors has doubled from a year earlier, Tourism Minister Avedis Guidanian says.
"The warnings and so on, that's what kept us away before. But we have big love for Lebanon," said Zeeb, whose family will spend most of the summer here.
"We're happy honestly. We saw our people here, from Saudi Arabia, Qatar, the Emirates... We've all gathered here once again."
Revenue from tourism will exceed $7 billion in 2019, nearly 46% more than last year, Guidanian told Reuters.
"Airlines, hotels and car rental bookings, they all point to very high growth," he said in an interview at Beirut airport. "And so, 2019 could be the best year for tourism in Lebanon."
He credits the boost to better security, efforts to tap into new markets and a thaw in relations with Riyadh.
Ties to Gulf states took a hit in recent years as the Iran-backed Hezbollah movement's influence grew in Lebanon.
Before the travel bans, Beirut had long been a favourite for Gulf Arabs escaping the stifling summer temperatures at home.
Lebanon is also looking further afield, beyond relying on Gulf tourists, to draw more people to its nightlife, UNESCO world heritage sites, mountain scenery and Mediterranean coast.
The tourism ministry expects 40% more European travellers this year than in 2010.
"I thought which country can I go to see Arab culture? Then I came across Lebanon and thought why not? It's safe to go," said Casper Boks, 21, a student from Amsterdam strolling down Beirut's busy Hamra street with a friend.
"We're just walking around the city ... I'm really enjoying it. It's so different (to) Europe and it's also so close."
There are more Western tourists roaming around Beirut's gleaming city centre which was rebuilt from the ruins of the 1975-90 civil war.
Though the peace has held since then, there are occasional lapses - most recently a deadly shooting in the popular Chouf mountains involving followers of rival Druze leaders.
Guidanian has described the incident as a hiccup Lebanon will soon overcome. He has pleaded with politicians not to let tensions flare, warning this would ruin the summer forecast.
"There's progress from the past years ... though not as much as our ambitions," said Pierre Achkar, head of the Lebanese Hotel Association. "We've suffered and the losses built up, but today, we're at the start of the ascent."