‘Lebanon is a treasure trove’

JOSEPH SARKIS, Lebanon’s new tourism minister, spells out his agenda to RAGHDA MUGHARBIL
Sarkis … confident

It’s hard not to admire Lebanon’s new minister of tourism Joseph Sarkis’ vision for the country and his plans to bring it back on track as one of the most preferred tourist destinations in the world. Sarkis, a former engineer who has worked for the private sector, believes that his background has helped him understand the tourism industry and made him better equipped to promote his country.

According to the minister, Lebanon has been following a master plan for tourism since 1997, in consultation with the World Tourism Organisation (WTO). The plan covers the development of tourism after the war, the rehabilitation of heritage sites and provides statistics and estimates the country’s tourism potential. “WTO helps in giving suggestions on how to improve the tourism sector and developing programmes accordingly. I am trying to continue what has been done so far,” Sarkis said.
In addition to working with WTO, the minister has his own agenda regarding the different sectors he wants to promote. Health tourism, for one, is a major concern for him. “We are trying to promote this sector along with others,” he pointed out. Health tourism, he believes, needs to be developed through agencies that the ministry will support and sponsor to the benefit of Lebanon’s Arab neighbours. “This requires a network between hospitals, airlines and tourism agencies but before that, we need to have an administration in place that can organise all the needs of this tourism sector,” he added.
His plan also includes developing religious sites and promoting them through the media since Lebanon has a wealth of shrines, citadels, mosques and churches that date back to hundreds of centuries. But that’s not all. Sarkis is also keen to promote Lebanese ski resorts as a place where both its Arab neighbours and Europeans can enjoy the eight weeks of winter. “Lebanon is the only country in the Arab world where skiing exists. We have camps for teaching youngsters how to ski and we have excellent resorts. Getting these ski resorts the recognition they deserve and promoting them both within the region and around the world is high on my agenda.”
In addition, eco-tourism is something that the minister is very interested in supporting because he believes that people –Europeans who travel around the world with a backpack, in particular – need to enjoy nature’s bounties that Lebanon has to offer. “Lebanon has a wonderful landscape where tourists can enjoy walking in the mountains or strolling down the picturesque villages, as well as marvelling the many religious and archeological sites.” The minister has plans to develop the necessary infrastructure to support his endeavour to promote eco-tourism in towns and mountains – Kaa in the Bekaa, Niha, and Baalbec and the entire Bsharee region have been earmarked for such development.
The minister takes pride in discussing the vast tourism potential that his country has and believes that there’s something for everyone in Lebanon. “We have events taking place every month. What’s more, we have a lot of festivals which take place in villages and cities in Lebanon. Also, it is worth mentioning that Lebanon has four distinct seasons that make it a great place to visit anytime of the year,” he added
When asked about the number of tourist arrivals this year as compared with same time last year, Sarkis said that the numbers were not bad. “I have statistics for the number of tourist arrivals from the months of January till July 2005. We have received 611,000 tourists compared to the same period last year in which we had 732,000 tourists. This is a 16.5 per cent decrease,” he said. “However, if we were to compare the same figures to 2003, where the average was 527,000 tourists, we have improved by 15.9 per cent.”
According to the minister, 2004 was an exceptional year and the reason for the decline in numbers this year has to do with security apprehensions of tourists in the aftermath of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri’s assassination. Though the minister does not have more recent figures of tourist arrivals, he said, “The feedback we received on the number of tourists coming to the country seems to be encouraging. Things are looking up.”
Sarkis added: “We are looking forward to welcoming more tourists who will be visiting Lebanon during Ramadan, X-mas and the New Year this year. We will do what we can to make sure that they not only enjoy their stay here but they return to the country.” The minister is also overseeing a film that promotes the country. “Lebanon is a treasure trove that people need to know about and we are working on promoting it through this film that will cover all the country’s attractions and showcase its potential to the world,” he said.