BEIRUT: Lebanon was on Monday preparing for a much-needed $1.5 billion cash injection with tourist chiefs predicting an influx of around 700,000 visitors over the coming days.
With the festive holiday season fast-approaching, hoteliers were reporting an upsurge in bookings on last year as the country temporarily began to put its economic and political woes to one side.
Decorative lights and trees, traditional markets, music festivals, and other popular events and activities were set to lift the nation’s gloom as Lebanese, expats, and foreign trippers were expected to flood into Beirut and coastal resorts.
And there was even some cheer on Monday from Lebanon’s caretaker Cabinet after it accepted a request for the central bank to release $35 million to buy medicines for dialysis and cancer patients, milk for children, plus financial assistance for the military and pensioners.
However, the Cabinet session was not held without acrimony as ministers of the Free Patriotic Movement boycotted the meeting over the continued political deadlock in Lebanon.
Addressing the session, Prime Minister Najib Mikati said: “We can no longer spend money to help cancer and dialysis patients. Do they (the FPM) want us to commit a collective crime?
“If that is what they are asking, then we won’t assume our responsibility and let everyone assume the consequences of their actions.
“If they want the country to collapse completely, I will not contribute to the crime of killing patients.”
Although the upcoming holiday season would provide a welcome cash boost, most experts said the revenues would act only as painkillers for the country’s ailing economy unless followed by a political breakthrough.
But in downtown Beirut decorative streetlights raised spirits among
the thousands of visitors flocking to markets selling food, drink, toys, books, and flowers.
One shopper said: “Beirut doesn’t fall, and these activities encourage the re-opening of the markets. People need to feel alive again.”
In Achrafieh, Sassine Square was being trimmed up in readiness for the holidays with traders planning to erect a Christmas tree alongside stalls selling festive products.
Preparations were also in full swing for the Beirut Chants music festival. The free event will run over 26 days in churches and souks around the capital and artistic director, Toufic Maatouk, said the festival, now in its 15th year, had received support from foreign ambassies and the participation of Lebanese bands.
Beirut Gov. Marwan Abboud said a host of activities had been lined up for visitors to the city.
Officials at Rafic Hariri International Airport noted that many Lebanese expats, especially from the Gulf region, were returning to spend the festive period with their families.
The airport, that has been acting as a transit point for football fans heading to Qatar for the World Cup, had also seen some supporters opting to stay in Lebanon on their way back from the tournament.
Jean Abboud, president of the Association of Travel and Tourist Agents, said flights were fully booked from Dec. 10 to 25 with the number of Arab tourists on the rise, particularly from Jordan, Egypt, and Iraq. Abboud added that bookings had increased by 38 percent compared to the same period last year.
The Lebanese Ministry of Tourism has predicted that around 700,000 tourists will arrive in the country over the coming days.
Pierre Achkar, chairman of the Lebanese Federation for Tourism and president of the Hotel Owners Association, expected hotel bookings to reach 60 percent.
Many luxury hotels are still undergoing restoration following the Beirut port blast, but the iconic Phoenicia hotel recently celebrated its reopening.
And on Beirut waterfront, close to the explosion site, the Arab Cultural Club and Syndicate of Publishers Union in Lebanon has inaugurated the 64th edition of the Beirut International and Arab Book Fair with more than 133 publishers taking part.
Salwa Siniora, head of the Arab Cultural Club, said: “Enlightened intellectuals have a prominent role to play in shaping the destiny of the nation, and that knowledge and intellect are the flame that will remove the abhorrent blackness impeding visibility and the creative imagination.”
But signs of the ongoing crises in the country remain prominent with another protester staging a sit-in at a Lebanese bank, this time in Antelias, demanding the release of savings.