Lebanon introduces GCC visa waiver

Beirut is a popular destination for GCC<br>travellers

REVENUES in Lebanon’s hospitality sector have dropped by roughly 40 per cent compared to previous years, according to a recent statement from Association of Hotel Owners chief Pierre Achkar to the country’s Daily Star newspaper.

And Tourism Minister Fadi Abboud recently told Voice of Lebanon radio station that the country has lost 65 per cent of its tourists coming by land due the security situation in neighbouring Syria.

He said numbers were down 21,000 from Jordan and 20,000 from Iran in June but added that there had been a 12 per cent rise in arrivals coming from Europe and the US.

Hotel occupancy rates currently stand at around 80 per cent in Beirut district and approximately 60 per cent at Mount Lebanon compared to demand levels of around 160 per cent at the same time last year.

And Achkar added that the tourist season has also been late in starting – the high season usually runs from June to late September but this year arrivals did not begin to pick up until the beginning of July and the season will end early due to August being the Holy Month of Ramadan when Muslims generally stay near home rather than travelling.

He said both political unrest and a possible ‘lack of approval’ for the recently formed government were behind the falling figures and urged the government to actively communicate with its regional and Gulf neighbours to give assurances on political stability.

Saudi Arabia is considered to be the most important market for tourists to Lebanon, with Jordan trailing closely behind. But nationals from both those countries have, for the most part, stayed away.

The majority of Lebanon’s tourists come from countries in the Gulf including Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Kuwait and according to figures released by Global Blue, the VAT refund operator for international shoppers, Saudis were still the biggest spending visitors to the country in the first five months of 2011.

Now the Lebanese government has announced a visa waiver for GCC nationals with travel agents saying the decision is an an opportunistic move to capitalise on Lebanon’s image as a safe haven, after the country largely sidestepped the wave of Arab Spring unrest despite there being some caution over its political situation.

And Abboud has pledged that tourism will be on the agenda at a coming cabinet meeting to address what further steps the government can take to help the faltering industry which makes an important contribution of around 20 per cent to Lebanon’s national income.