BEIRUT (AFP) — Despite years of political instability, wars and domestic unrest, tourists are flocking to Lebanon this summer for what is expected to be a bumper year for the small Mediterranean country.
"We expect two million Arabs -- not including Syrians -- and other nationalities by the end of 2009," tourism ministry director Nada Sardouk told AFP. "This will be a record in the history of Lebanon."
While Lebanon, which has a population of about four million, hosted a total 1.3 million tourists last summer -- its best season since the end of the 1975-1990 civil war -- hotels this year are almost fully booked already.
"The rate of hotel occupancy in Beirut has already reached 85 percent," said Pierre Achkar, head of Lebanon's hotel owners syndicate.
The rocky beaches of the north and the sandy coasts in the south are buzzing with local and foreign holidaymakers, and restaurants in the renovated heart of Beirut are packed most nights of the week.
Beirut topped the New York Times list of top vacation destinations in January and was listed among the top 10 cities for 2009 by the Lonely Planet for its charm and dynamism.
"Lebanon is poised to reclaim its title as the 'Paris of the Middle East'," the New York Times wrote.
Lebanon was rocked by a series of political murders following the 2005 assassination of ex-premier Rafiq Hariri and endured a devastating war in 2006 between Israel and Hezbollah that left much of the country in ruins.
In 2007, the army was locked in a fierce 15-week battle with an Al-Qaeda-inspired Islamist group at a Palestinian refugee camp and last year, Hezbollah-led militants took over swathes of the capital in street clashes that left more than 100 people dead.
Fears of more violence were widespread ahead of the crucial general election in June, but the vote passed off relatively peacefully and Arabs and Lebanese expatriates are today arriving en masse.
Lebanon is increasingly becoming a popular stop for ordinary holidaymakers and celebrities alike, with American heiress and party girl Paris Hilton hosting a bash in the capital Beirut at the weekend.
Summer music and dance festivals, which had to be cancelled in previous years because of war or political turmoil, are back on the entertainment calendar this year, attracting thousands of visitors.
Lebanon is hosting three prestigious festivals during the summer, with rock legends Deep Purple and newcomers Keane among those set to take the stage.
Despite a renewed clash in Beirut last month between supporters of the Sunni-led Western-backed government and the rival Hezbollah-led camp that left a woman bystander dead, business leaders and officials are optimistic.
"There is an increase of 16 percent over last year as far as reservations are concerned," said Nizar Khoury, commercial director of Lebanon's national carrier Middle East Airlines (MEA).
He said the the number of travellers to and from Lebanon between January and May was up 29 percent on the same period last year.
"We will carry on as if political tensions did not exist," Sardouk said.
Guy Bertaud, managing director of the five-star Vendome-Intercontinental hotel, said the current detente "reassures both visitors and investors."
But he said Lebanon remains a relatively unknown destination as it lacks the proper infrastructure for mass tourism and security remains a primary concern.
"The country is not yet a European destination. In the eyes of foreigners, it remains a high-risk country and is reported as such on the Internet. Travel agencies do not 'sell' it," added Achkar.
The US Department of State still advises US citizens against travel to Lebanon as the "situation remains tense and a resumption of sporadic violence remains a possibility."
But Achkar said that while tour operators in Lebanon lag behind some of neighbouring countries where sightseeing is more organised, such as Egypt, investments in hotels are on the rise.
"Two billion dollars are invested in around 10 hotels that are under construction or in the works in Beirut," Achkar said. "This will provide 2,000 more rooms and create 6,000 more job opportunities."
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