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Lebanon 2017 | TOURISM | FOCUS: GULF TOURISM

Bottoming out in 2015, tourism from the Gulf states to Lebanon is rebounding thanks to slowly improving relations with its neighbors.

The realistic prospect of a return of Gulf tourists following a series of bans is providing fresh impetus to a sector also buoyed by a return to political stability in Lebanon.

According to EY's Middle East Hotel Benchmark Survey report, the occupancy rates for five-star hotels in Lebanon reached 64% by the end of 2016. This is the highest rate they have reached in the month of December since 2010. The expectations for summer 2017 indicate a rise in tourism, albeit not at the levels of the summer of 2009 or 2010.
2010 was considered the golden year for Lebanon in terms of tourists' arrivals; that year, 2.17 million visitors entered the country. After six years, the numbers show a decrease, at 1.5 million at the end of 2015. The reason for this decrease likely comes from local and regional instability, local inability to set up a government, and security issues.
The timeline of Lebanon's tourism slowdown coincides with the Syrian crisis, which kept some of Lebanon's biggest fans, Arab tourists from other countries, away from the region. Hotels, tour agencies, and other entities in the sector have been affected and report losses.
Travel warnings from national authorities in Arab states started, in 2012, advising their citizens not to travel to Lebanon. Now, thanks to strong and positive foreign policy, the ban has more or less been lifted, although not officially.
Why are Arab tourists so important for Lebanon? Arab tourists share a cultural affinity and look upon the country favorably due to its location. Historically, Arabs have invested in Lebanon; many own second residences in the country and others establish businesses. GCC nationals enjoy the European experience, while still being able to speak Arabic on vacation.
According to the Ministry of Tourism, during July and August 2016, over 91,000 visitors from Arab countries, mainly Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and the UAE, came to Lebanon. In 2017, if the security situation improves, a significant increase in the number of Gulf tourists in Lebanon is expected during the summer months .
Visitors from Saudi Arabia, while not top in volume, are Lebanon's top tourist spenders. According to the World Travel and Tourism Council, Lebanon ranks amongst the top countries when it comes to tourism's direct contribution to GDP and employment growth potential. Out of more than 175 countries, Lebanon ranks in 10th position with an average long-term growth of 6.8% per year in travel and tourism's direct contribution to GDP. This data is ahead of both the global and Middle East regional averages of 4.2% and 4.9%, respectively. Minister of Tourism Avedis Guidanian also announced that the country has prepared a plan to welcome back Arab tourists. Notably, the plans consist of competitive pricing and the organization of cultural and scientific conferences.
In efforts to move past tensions between Lebanon and Saudi Arabia from the first half of 2016, Saudi Arabia was the first country that President Michel Aoun visited following his swearing in as Head of State. Due to the improvements in bilateral relations, Saudi Arabia will appoint a new ambassador in Lebanon and lift all travel restrictions, according to Thamer al-Sabhan, Saudi's Minister of State for Arab Gulf Affairs. He also announced that Saudi Arabian Airlines will increase its routes to Lebanon.
Since Beirut's airport is the primary entrance point, air passenger arrivals at Beirut Airport during the Eid Al-Fitr holiday of 2017 outnumbered departures by 24,000 passengers—5,000 more than the year before—according to statistics from the Civil Aviation Authority. Civil Aviation Authority report also suggests that those passengers are staying longer in the country. Lebanon is touted for its resiliency, and the country's tourism sector seems to be no exception, as it seems to have weathered the worst of the storm.