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Thu 13 Oct 2011 11:57 AM

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Beirut tourism slows to trickle amid Arab unrest

Arab traffic shrinks dramatically, threatening backbone of Lebanon's economy

Beirut tourism slows to trickle amid Arab unrest
Two Arab tourists walk in downtown Beirut, Lebanon

All too often the centre of Middle East upheaval, Lebanon
has taken a back seat as a wave of revolts surge through the region. But the
small country is not immune to the tumult around it and tourism here has taken
a hit.

At the bottom of the Nahr al-Kalb valley, a trickle of
tourists get almost-exclusive access to the Jeita Grotto, karstic limestone caves
which stretch more than 10km into the mountains.

Deep in the cave, small metal guideboats make their way
noiselessly along a smooth underground river, rarely passing each other and
never filled to capacity.

The sound of droplets from giant stalactites hitting the
water can be heard and the caves are lit up by blue and orange lights,
specially adapted to emit virtually no heat to prevent mosses from growing in
the caves and ruining the delicate stone structures.

"We've had a very bad summer," a Jeita Grotto
employee whispers, as if the quiet of the cave has awarded it a church-like
respect. "During previous summers, we used to get 3,000 to 4,000 visitors
a day to the caves, now it's more like 700."

She said tourists from the Gulf and other Arab countries
make up the majority of visitors.

"But we've been having big problems."

The biggest problem, this time, comes from neighbouring
Syria where President Bashar al-Assad has been accused of killing at least
2,900 civilians in a military crackdown against pro-democracy protests which started
in March.

Around 600,000 Arab tourists drive into Lebanon yearly
through Syria - the only country Lebanon shares an open border with as the
small country is in a state of war with Israel. Cutting through Syria is a
cheap option for most regional tourists and they can take the whole family for
the summer.

But the instability has shrunk tourist traffic through
Syria, which accounts for a quarter of all tourist arrivals to Lebanon, and
Arab arrivals on the Syrian-Lebanese border are down 90 percent.

Employees at the grotto say 10 to 15 buses used to arrive
each day, full of Arab tourists who had come through Syria. Now two to three
buses arrive, they say, and there are no more queues for the underground boat

"Lebanon saw a 20 percent decrease in international
arrivals for the first half of 2011,” said John Kester, who observes industry
trends at the United Nations World Tourism Organisation (UNWTO).

The second half of 2011 could be much worse as the situation
in Syria has since escalated and data from Lebanon's summer high season has not
been released.

"No country is immune from what is happening in the
surrounding region and most people have to travel overland [into Lebanon],"
Kester said.

"Lebanon is affected indirectly, not because of what is
happening in the country itself."

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Western tourists have shied away from the Middle East after
a wave of popular revolts spread through the region toppling leaders in
Tunisia, Egypt and Libya. Even countries that have remained relatively stable,
such as Lebanon and Jordan, have seen a decline in arrivals for the United
States and Europe.

The Jeita Grotto's general manager, Nabil Haddad, said
visitors from Europe and elsewhere outside the Middle East often include Lebanon
as part of a regional tour.

"But when Syria is cancelled, Lebanon is automatically
cut out," Haddad said.

In an attempt to boost tourism Lebanon has been campaigning
to have the Jeita Grotto chosen as one of seven 'wonders of nature' in an
international competition.

The cave system, which is home to the longest stalactite on
the planet at over 8 metres (yards), was entered into the 'New7Wonders of
Nature' contest in 2007 and Lebanon is trying to shore up votes in the global
poll which ends next month.

"It is an exercise in PR," said Tourism Minister
Fadi Abboud. "We are trying our best to make people vote," added the
minister, who persuaded his political allies to attend a cabinet meeting in
T-shirts declaring: "I voted for Jeita Grotto."

Jeita has made it into the 28 finalists, along with
Tanzania's Kilimanjaro and the Mud Volcanoes in Azerbaijan, but with tourism
numbers down Haddad is worried.

"Now we are in the final stages," he said.
"People in Lebanon have not taken it very seriously. Other countries have
done things to promote their (natural wonders) but we don't get the feeling
that our vote is being promoted," he added.

Some Lebanese say they will not vote for the grotto as it is
too expensive, at over $12, for many Lebanese to visit.

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Lebanon has long been plagued by years of conflict, first
during a 15-year civil war and then in 2006 when 1,200 Lebanese, mostly
civilians, were killed during a month-long war with Israel.

The country's Roman ruins, ski resorts and beaches, 24-hour
nightlife, cuisine and joie de vivre atmosphere make Lebanon enormously
attractive to tourists from around the world during periods of stability.

"Lebanon has always been a destination with big ups and
downs. It always has the ability to recover," said UNWTO's Kester.
"Last year tourism was up 70 percent, this year it is down 20

Kester said the biggest issue for Lebanon was how it will
adapt to the crisis in Syria.

"Tourism in Egypt went down 40 percent this year, but
we expect it to recover. Lebanon will not. They might have to open up new
corridors into the country."

However, Tourism Minister Abboud remains optimistic.

"You have to adapt. Most so-called third world
countries do," he said. "If you are a farmer, you depend on the
weather. If you work in the tourism sector, you depend on security and the
political situation."

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