Lebanon looks to cash in as UAE travel ban is lifted

Members of Lebanon's tourism industry hailed the decision as positive for the country, which is struggling with an economic crisis

RJ1R0C Mohammad Al-Amin Mosque in Beirut, Lebanon
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The UAE’s decision to lift its travel ban to Lebanon, starting on Tuesday, was enthusiastically welcomed by the Lebanese tourism industry, which hoped the return of Emirati travellers would support the country’s ailing economy.

“It’s very good,” said Elie Abiad, a Beirut travel agent in the upmarket neighbourhood of Ashrafieh.

Tourism Minister Avedis Guidanian told the state-run National News Agency: “It will lead first to the return of UAE tourists, and second to the return of UAE investments, which will cause an increase in tourist spending.”

Mr Guidanian thanked the UAE leaders and Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri, who left Abu Dhabi on Monday after a two-day visit to raise financial support for his cash-strapped country.

He also thanked the UAE ambassador to Lebanon, Hamad Al Shamsi, for his work in having the ban lifted.

Jean Beyrouthi, secretary general of the federation of tourist unions in Lebanon, said he hoped that an increase in Emirati tourists “would help Lebanon overcome its economic challenges”.

Fouad Zmokhol, president of the Association of Lebanese Business People in the World, told The National: "The Emirates sent a message of hope and support to Lebanon at the right moment, which is very important to create a climate of trust."

Tracey Bolton, director of sales and marketing at the luxury Phoenicia Hotel in central Beirut, said that lifting the ban was likely to “positively reflect on the tourism sector and the Lebanese economy as a whole”.

Khalid Belhoul, undersecretary at the UAE Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Co-operation, said on Monday night that the decision followed talks with the Lebanese government, which gave guarantees about the security of the country’s entry points.

UAE citizens were banned outright from travelling to Lebanon in 2016 because of security concerns of a spillover from the Syrian conflict.

Tourism Ministry data from the same year showed a 35 per cent drop in visitors from Saudi Arabia, which issued a travel warning, and a 72 per cent drop in UAE visitors ­after the announcements.

Regional security concerns have also affected the Lebanese economy, with growth slowing to 1.3 per cent last year.

In the past few weeks, the US dollar, which is used in Lebanon along with the pound, has become scarce because of a slowdown of capital flowing into the banking system.

Tourists from the Gulf are highly sought after because they spend more than European or American visitors.

“Unlike European tourists who like travel packages, Emirati tourists pick nice hotels or villas suited to their individual taste,” Mr Abiad said.

Lebanon is struggling to push through reforms to revamp its decaying infrastructure and has one of the world’s highest debt burdens, at 150 per cent of GDP.

In 2018, tourism contributed $3.8 billion (Dh13.95bn) to the Lebanese economy, or 7 per cent of gross domestic product.

However, tourism picked up this year and represented one of the rare bright spots in an otherwise bleak economic outlook. Lebanon experienced its best summer since 2011. An estimated 1.4 million tourists visited in the first eight months of 2019, the Central Administration of Statistics revealed, not dissimilar to 2010, which was a record year.

Most of these visitors were European, but the number of tourists from Arab countries exploded compared with 2018, with a sharp increase of 81 per cent from Saudi Arabia, which withdrew its travel warning last February.