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War in the Near East: Misleading results in July

The war between Israel and Hezbollah had negative consequences on tourism in the Near East. While in July in Lebanon and Israel it was not yet dramatic, the months to come should be very difficult in the land of the Cedar Tree. The wave of cancellations and the shortage of active bookings make authorities fear the worst. Today, conflict weighs down a summer season that looked promising.Further South, tourism in Israel was beginning to recover just before the conflict, when it was on its way to surpassing 2.4 million tourists. In the country, the effect of war could also be felt, but unevenly. “Summer is a strong period. We would have surpassed an 85% occupancy rate in Tel Aviv. Occupancy rates for July and August were around 70%,” explains Motti Verses, Head of Public relations for the Hilton group in Israel. Israel’s capital is dependant on international tourism. However, the beach resort Eilat is highly appreciated by domestic clientele and “our Eilat property did well,” observes Motti Verses. In fact, Israeli clientele deserted the North of the country, particularly the Lake Tiberiade region, a highly prized destination but that is within striking distance from the Hezbollah. According to the Hilton group head, “the situation is nonetheless returning to normal”. Let us hope that the same shall be true across the border as well and as quickly as possible.Despite combat between Tzahal and Hezbollah, hotels in the area did not experience a collapse in their performance in July. “We saved what we could,” observes Claude Rababy, director of the Sofitel Le Gabriel. The first fortnight of July, judged “excellent” by most hotel directors in Beirut, began the summer season with a solid base. At this time of the year, many Lebanese expatriates traditionally return to spend their holidays in their native country. To these may be added a significant number of Middle Eastern clientele escaping the heat of the Gulf. Not to mention many tourists who simply want to discover Lebanon. All these clientele were present.In July, several elements may explain the relative steadiness of results that may be considered reasonable under such circumstances: -11.6% for the RevPAR and occupancy rates that surpass 61%. First of all, these results are being compared with 2005 which was already upset by the consequences of the assassination of Prime Minister Rafic Hariri in February. Then, the flight from the country of residents who were present when conflict broke out was not necessarily immediate. On the contrary, “the uncertainty that reigned led our clients to postpone their departure” and consequently to seek out accommodations where they were,” explains Claude Rababy. Finaly, properties located far away from the Israeli bombing benefited from substitute clientele. “We had a “very good” occupancy rate thanks to the presence of many international journalists, not to mention many NGOs that came to help destitute families,” explains Josef Kufer, director of the Mövenpick Hotel Beirut.But it is clear that this war would result in more consequences. Lebanon was on its way to a record year with 1.6 million tourists expected and August is already catastrophic. “In 2004, the reference year and comparable to 2006 in terms of its level of activity, the occupancy rate of hotels in Beirut was 96% in August. Today this figure is 16.5%”. Despite the cease-fire signed last August 14, the months to come look far from promising. “From the beginning of the conflict, we received cancellations for 2,000 nights. But the most worrying factor is the absence of bookings until December,” deplores Claude Rababy. The bombing of the airport led to the suspension of flights. And today the number of flights to Beirut is still limited, as they all go via Jordan. Consequence: while waiting for better days, several hotels have closed their doors including the Sheraton Coral Beach and the InterContinental Vendôme. Josef Kufer tries to be optimistic: “We hope to see tourists return slowly but surely in the months to come. But business is weak, we foresee continuing our crisis plan in order to limit spending and maintain our 420 employees.”Further South, tourism in Israel was beginning to recover just before the conflict, when it was on its way to surpassing 2.4 million tourists. In the country, the effect of war could also be felt, but unevenly. “Summer is a strong period. We would have surpassed an 85% occupancy rate in Tel Aviv. Occupancy rates for July and August were around 70%,” explains Motti Verses, Head of Public relations for the Hilton group in Israel. Israel’s capital is dependant on international tourism. However, the beach resort Eilat is highly appreciated by domestic clientele and “our Eilat property did well,” observes Motti Verses. In fact, Israeli clientele deserted the North of the country, particularly the Lake Tiberiade region, a highly prized destination but that is within striking distance from the Hezbollah. According to the Hilton group head, “the situation is nonetheless returning to normal”. Let us hope that the same shall be true across the border as well and as quickly as possible.

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