I hesitate to be excited--last time this happened is was 2005, and we all know what happened then....
BEIRUT — Nearly 2 million tourists visited Lebanon in 2009, a record that exceeds even the glamorous years before the civil war when Beirut was known as the Paris of the Middle East.
In figures released to The Associated Press on Tuesday, the Ministry of Tourism said 1,851,081 tourists visited Lebanon in 2009, a 39 per cent increase from the year before. The previous record was 1.4 million tourists in 1974 - just before the disastrous 1975-90 civil war broke out.
Tourism Minister Fadi Abboud estimated the country's annual income from tourism at up to $7 billion, or about 20 per cent of gross domestic product.
The booming tourism sector is the latest sign of progress in Lebanon, a country that had become notorious for its years of kidnappings, car bombs and political assassinations. But Lebanon has seen greater stability recently, drawing once-leery foreigners to its snowcapped mountains and stunning Mediterranean seaside.
Nabil Majdalani, who has been working in Lebanon's restaurant industry since the 1970s, said his business grew about 15 per cent in 2009.
"This was the year when we saw the biggest number of foreigners at our restaurant since before the civil war," Majdalani said.
During the civil war, tourists simply stopped coming to Lebanon, scared off by the reports of Westerners being snatched off the streets of Beirut. A thriving tourism industry that lured Hollywood stars to the Middle East all but dried up.
The industry was just starting to recover some of its lustre when Lebanon's billionaire former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, the power behind the multibillion-dollar postwar reconstruction, was assassinated in 2005 in a massive truck bomb in Beirut.
Then, in July 2006, Israel and Lebanon's Shiite militant group Hezbollah fought a 34-day war in which some 1,200 Lebanese were killed and billions of dollars worth of infrastructure destroyed. Thousands of tourists and vacationing Lebanese expatriates were evacuated from the country because of the fighting.
And in 2008, Hezbollah militants swept through Sunni neighbourhoods of Beirut to briefly seize control after the government moved to curb the group's military communications network. More than 80 people were killed in the violence that followed.
But Lebanon has seen greater stability recently and formed a unity government last year. A key recommendation by The New York Times, which named Beirut as the top place to visit in 2009, helped boost the country's image.
Pierre Ashkar, head of the Hotel Owners' Association, said occupancy at international-standard hotels in Beirut averaged 76 per cent in 2009.
"This was one of the best years ever," Ashkar said.
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