DUBAI (Reuters) - Gulf Arab states will scrap by the end of the month a travel warning for citizens thinking of visiting Lebanon, in a sign of improving relations with the new Lebanese government, its tourism minister said on Wednesday.
The Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) - Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Kuwait, Oman, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates - once provided the bulk of Lebanon’s tourism revenue but last June warned citizens against visiting as Syria’s civil war fuelled sectarian violence in its smaller neighbor.
“Unofficially it has been lifted. When people talk to the authorities they tell them: ‘You can go to Lebanon’,” Lebanese Tourism Minister Michel Pharaon told Reuters in a telephone interview.
“Now we’re waiting for the (official) green light. We see this will be before the end of the month.”
Lifting the travel advisory comes as Lebanon’s new government, formed in February after 10 months of political deadlock, beds in.
The Sunni Muslim-ruled GCC countries viewed the previous government of Prime Minister Najib Mikati, which was formed in 2011 and remained in office in a caretaker capacity after his resignation in March 2013, as a creation of their foe, the Shi‘ite group Hezbollah.
“Because of some misunderstanding with the (former) government and some deterioration (in relations) they avoided coming to Lebanon last year,” said Pharaon.
“The government is really tight on security, with strong international support for stability in Lebanon. This is new, so they’re observing and making sure this is something which is holding.”
Tourism and related industries account for a fifth of Lebanon’s economy and employ about 250,000 people, Pharaon said, but the number of foreign visitors fell to 1.3 million last year from 2.3 million in 2010, the last summer before the start of an insurrection against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
“The crisis we went through was very costly and damaging but we still have all the touristic assets and we think we can revive them,” Pharaon told a news conference, adding that Lebanon aimed to host 1.8 million tourists this year.
Political tensions in Lebanon remain, and its parliament is in stalemate over who should be the next president after President Michel Suleiman’s term expires in less than three weeks.
Editing by Robin Pomeroy