ALEY, LEBANON — As the war in Syria enters its third year, its economic impact is being felt by neighboring countries. Lebanon’s tourist industry declined by as much as 15 percent in 2012.
Visitors from the Persian Gulf states, who makeup approximately a third of Lebanon’s tourists, but account for about 60 percent of the tourism spending, have stopped coming. Some are worried about the security situation, others are boycotting Lebanon for political reasons.
The nickname of the once popular Lebanese mountain town Aley is ‘Arous el Masayif’ - ‘the bride of touristic places.’ But the picturesque village outside Beirut that once attracted many Saudis and other Gulf nation nationals for its quaint atmosphere and cool evening breezes, looks abandoned these days.
Many restaurants are empty. Some have closed down for good.
Maher Abou Hassan, the manager of a restaurant in Aley said, "Before, you needed two to three hours just to get through the main street of Aley. It used to be packed. Now, look. It’s empty. Most of my customers used to be from the Gulf. This year, I had only two from there. And even the Lebanese customers are not coming much."
Abou Hassan’s restaurant, “The Sound of the Oud” - like the streets of his village - also used to be packed, filling all 200 seats every Saturday night. Now he’s lucky if he gets 40 customers.
Abou Hassan had to cut his employees from around 18 to four.
With its beautiful mountains, stunning beaches, Roman ruins and Ottoman architecture, Lebanon’s economy has long leaned on tourism, which accounts for more than a quarter of its gross domestic product. Visitor numbers are down nearly 38 percent from 2010.
But the war in neighboring Syria is just one of the factors, says Lebanon’s Minister of Tourism Fady Abboud.
"We don’t have a road link with the rest of the world because certainly we don’t have a link with Israel, the only link is through Syria and probably I lost about a quarter of a million tourists coming by road to Lebanon, mainly Jordanians, Iranians and certainly from the Gulf," he said.
To entice tourists, the ministry recently offered a promotion of 50 days for 50 percent off. Discounts were offered on airline tickets, hotels and restaurants.
"I regret to tell you that it hasn’t really worked because the reason for the Arab nationals not coming to Beirut is not the price actually; it’s the situation, political and security situation," said Nizar Khoury, head of the commercial section for Lebanon’s national carrier, Middle East Airlines.
So Lebanon is trying to diversify its pool of tourists by reaching out to new audiences from Russia, Latin America and Africa, among other regions.