by Dana Halawi
BEIRUT, July 27 (Xinhua) -- About 10 years ago, Lebanon was among the top tourist destinations for travelers from the Gulf.
Gulf tourists were keen to secure their room reservations in Lebanon's hotels starting May or June of every year to visit touristic attractions in the country, including beach resorts, mountains, shopping malls, pubs and historic monuments.
However, the situation now has changed.
Pierre Ashkar, president of the Syndicate of Hotel Owners in Lebanon, said that Lebanon lost in the past few years many of its Saudi and Emirati tourists due to political bickering and the hatred speech by some political parties against Gulf countries.
"Unfortunately, we have lost many of our tourists from Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) since 2011 due to political statements against these countries, war in neighboring Syria, in addition to threats of a potential war between the United States and Iran and the possibility of Lebanon's involvement in such a conflict," Ashkar said in an interview.
Ashkar said that while Lebanon's hotels were fully occupied by Gulf tourists in the past, occupancy in Beirut stands at an average of 75 percent now, while hotels in the mountains see only 40 percent occupancy this summer.
"Even Gulf tourists who own houses in Lebanese mountains rarely visited now," he said.
Ashkar said that former regular Saudi and UAE tourists to Lebanon have chosen other countries during summer such as Turkey, Greece and Cyprus.
Ashkar said he hopes for more tourists from the Gulf in 2019 with similar expectations announced earlier this year by the Lebanese tourism minister and Saudi ambassador to Lebanon.
In addition to complicated political developments, Ashkar said the lower number of tourists from the Gulf during this summer was also caused by the latest security incidents that took place in Aley and Tripoli earlier this year.
On June 4, a total of four members of the Lebanese Army and Internal Security forces were killed in a terror attack that hit Lebanon's northern city Tripoli.
Also, the convoy of Lebanese Minister of State for the Displaced Saleh Gharib was attacked on June 30 while he was heading to the mountain village of Qabr Shamoun, and two of his guards were killed.
"These two incidents weighted heavily on reservations for sure," Ashkar said.
Rashid Al Aawar, in charge of reservations at Safir Bhamdoun Hotel, told Xinhua that he also wanted to see more Saudi and Emirati tourists this year. The hotel witnessed some cancellations of reservations after the incidents.
Likewise, front desk manager at Cherry Blossom hotel in Bhamdoun, said that tourists from Saudi Arabia and UAE are very rare.
However, Lebanon is witnessing a surge in demand by tourists from other countries such as Egypt, Jordan, Iran and European countries.
Ashkar said that the minister's expectations of a record number of 2 million tourists this year is very possible because the number of European tourists have increased remarkably.
However, Ashkar said that Lebanon usually benefits most from Gulf tourists because they spend the most and stay for longer periods compared with other nationalities.
He said that back in 2009 and 2010, families from the Gulf used to compete for renting an apartment of 4,250 square meters owned by Grand Hills Hotel in Brummana, mount of Lebanon, for 35,000 U.S. dollars per night which is not the case anymore.
Ashkar also noted that European tourists are using hospitality service websites and apps like Airbnb, which have become popular by allowing people to rent rooms in Lebanese people's houses instead of hotels for saving money.
He stressed the need to draft a strategy that would not only increase the number of tourists from different countries but also work on bringing back Gulf tourists to Lebanon, especially the young generations.