Violence drives tourists out of Lebanon

A spate of terrorist bombings has triggered a wave of cancellations of hotel and flight bookings, dashing hopes that the hospitality sector would experience a better summer this year than last.

Beirut's Duroy Hotel after a man blew himself up as security forces stormed his room on June 25. Bilal Hussein / AP Photo
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BEIRUT // The roadblocks and sandbags are back, cafes and hotels are nearly empty and many of the tourists are gone.

Anxiety is gripping Lebanon following a spate of suicide bombings, and a continuing security sweep targeting militants – some of them who had been staying in four-star Beirut hotels – has triggered a wave of cancellations of hotel and flight bookings in a country already on edge.

The militants involved are said by security officials to be part of a network of terrorist sleeper cells planning suicide bombings targeting security leaders and civilians. That has fuelled concerns that Sunni extremists surging in Iraq and Syria were taking their fight to Lebanon next.

Along Beirut’s corniche, crowds are thinner. Not far away is the seaside Duroy hotel – one side of it still slightly blackened after a suicide bomber blew himself up during a police raid on his room on June 25. At the high-end Beirut Souks shopping complex in the downtown business district, the passages between shops are nearly empty of shoppers.

“In the month or two before the incident at the Duroy, we were seeing a lot of Saudi, Iraqi tourists,” said a 36-year-old bookstore manager in Beirut. “We really thought that the start of this summer was better than the last one.

“Then the bombings and arrests happened, and we didn’t see them anymore.”

Lebanon has been profoundly affected by the civil war in Syria over the past three years. In addition to the influx of more than 1 million Syrian refugees to the country, the conflict has inflamed tensions among Lebanon’s long-feuding sects, causing violence, including street clashes and bombings.

The country is sharply split between those who back the overwhelmingly Sunni rebels fighting to topple the regime of Bashar Al Assad, and those who support him, including Shiite Hizbollah, which has sent its fighters to reinforce Mr Al Assad’s forces against the rebels.

The recent cancellations cap a downwards trend in the number of tourists to Lebanon since the conflict in Syria began. The tourism minister, Michel Pharaon, said the number of tourists in 2013 dropped by 1 million compared to the 2.3 million tourists who visited Lebanon in 2010. The number of visitors for the first five months of 2014 was down nine per cent from the same period last year, though the ministry had no figures for June and July.

After enjoying relative calm for nearly three months, a new wave of violence erupted in the middle of last month, coinciding with dramatic events in Iraq, where Islamic State militants have taken over large parts of the country.

In the space of one week beginning on June 20, a suicide attacker blew up his car near a checkpoint in eastern Lebanon, another near a cafe in southern Beirut and a third blew himself up at the Duroy to avoid arrest.

The explosions killed two people and wounded others. Security forces searching for the militants have raided several hotels in Beirut, upsetting tourists, some of whom headed to the airport immediately afterward.

A military prosecutor on Monday charged 28 people with planning bombing attacks and belonging to Islamic State.

Now, instead of the relatively calm summer that Lebanese had hoped would bring some badly needed cash for the economy, workers put up roadblocks to guard against car bombs. Guards at malls search shoppers more meticulously. At the World Cup Fan Park in Beirut, organisers erected metal detectors at two entrances to the open air complex with three giant screens. Additional security personnel go through personal belongings before allowing fans to enter.

Mr Pharaon said Lebanon’s security situation is better than other countries in the region. But, he said, if there is a militant “insistence to target Lebanon, this will effect not just on the tourism sector but the overall situation in Lebanon”.

Ayman Fariq Abu Ali, 30, a taxi driver, said the possibility of new violence did not worry him..

“We grew up with death. We’re used to it,” he said.

He’s more concerned with making a living with tourists gone. In previous years, he had long-distance fares with tourists visiting around the country. Now he waits on the pavement for small fares, sweating in the thick heat.

Following last month’s attacks, the UAE reissued a warning to its nationals not to travel to or stay in Lebanon, making business owners fear that other Gulf states will follow suit.

“This is going to effect Gulf tourism in Lebanon. If I’m from the Gulf, why would I want to go to a country where every day there is an explosion or a car bombing?” asked George Alam, a political analyst.

* Associated Press