BEIRUT Security concerns and travel restrictions from Gulf Arab states have driven Lebanese tourist arrivals down by 27 percent during the small Mediterranean state's peak season, Lebanon's caretaker tourism minister said.
Lebanon's beaches, bars and historical sites are a draw for tourists but the country is feeling the effects of the war in neighbouring Syria, where 100,000 people have been killed in a two-year conflict between rebels and President Bashar al-Assad.
Syrian helicopters have fired on Lebanese territory while hunting for fleeing rebels. Militants supporting opposing sides of the Syrian war have also clashed this year in Lebanon's port cities of Tripoli and Sidon and bombs have exploded in Beirut.
"The first six months were down by about 6.5 percent compared to 2012. July was down by even more, by 27 percent. Really the situation is difficult. It is not catastrophic," Fadi Abboud said at his ministry on Monday.
Tourism figures were already sharply down last year, with 1.5 million visitors compared to a peak of 2 million in 2010, the year before Syria's uprising erupted.
Lebanon's tourism industry accounted for nearly a fifth of GDP a few years ago. Now some hotels are reporting occupancy rates of less than 10 percent in the summer months.
The industry in Lebanon is heavily focused on wealthy Gulf Arab tourists who come in summer. Several Gulf states put travel bans on Lebanon following a spate of kidnappings last year.
Even Lebanon's world-renowned summer festivals have been affected by the unrest, with the most prestigious event - held in the Roman ruins in the Bekaa Valley - having to be moved to Beirut following clashes and rocket attacks in the area.
Festival attendance this year is 90 percent Lebanese, Abboud said. He said that he was trying to organise package tours for next year to boost foreign visitors but tour operators feared cancellations due to the instability.
Abboud says that for the industry to recover, the Lebanese tourism sector needed to change its reliance on rich Gulf tourists. "We are happy without multi-millionaires. We have to change the mindset. For the last 20 years we put in our minds that we do not need middle-income tourists," he said.
Middle-income Iraqis, Jordanians and Egyptians have taken a larger share of the market this year, he said, and even wealthy Syrians who fled the war and are staying in hotels and suites are contributing.
"About 20 percent of the business now is Syrian," he said.
(Reporting by Oliver Holmes; Editing by Raissa Kasolowsky)