Despite History Of Strife, More Tourists Flock To Lebanon
ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
Lebanon may not seem like the most obvious vacation destination with its history of civil war, kidnappings and Israeli invasions, but those days are long past. And despite its reputation for strife or maybe even because of it, tourism in Lebanon is on the rise. NPR's Ruth Sherlock reports.
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RUTH SHERLOCK, BYLINE: The sun is out, and there's a gentle breeze. And we're on this little platform overlooking the Mediterranean Sea, which is sparkling in the sunlight.
That's one of the many hotels in Beirut. These days, they are packed, even in the mid-afternoon on a weekday. In the West, the word Lebanon is synonymous with conflict, but the civil war is long past, and the war in Syria hasn't spread over the border like people feared it might. Now, slowly, tourists are coming back. The government says there's been a some 15 percent increase in travelers to Beirut compared to last year. People from the Middle East are in the lead. Some come for medical treatment from wars in places like Iraq, but mostly they're here for the beach clubs and the night life.
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SHERLOCK: Samir Talib traveled here from Jordan with his girlfriend, who's from even farther away.
ANASTASIA YATKATCHA: Anastasia Yatkatcha - I am from Russia. I am in love with weather and here's clubbing.
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RIHANNA: (Singing) Oh, Baby, this is what you came for. Oh, Baby...
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SHERLOCK: Some come because it still seems an edgy place to visit. Moustafa Ali Fahs is the co-founder of Alternative Beirut. He offers walking tours that take tourists to parts of the city they might otherwise never see.
MOUSTAFA FAHS: Most of the people who come to visit Beirut - they end up staying in similar safe zones. What my job is going to be today is taking you out of that safe zone. I'm just joking. Nothing's going to happen to you all walking. But really, my...
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: I was like, hey, is there a minefield here?
SHERLOCK: No, there are no minefields. He takes you to see areas populated by Lebanon's different sects and poorer districts away from the beach clubs. It appeals to those who want adventure from their holiday.
KAREN VENGER: Well, my mom was very concerned (laughter) when I, like, told her, yeah, I'm going to Lebanon. She was like, oh, you really want to go there?
SHERLOCK: Karen Venger from Switzerland is a backpacker on the walking tour.
VENGER: Now I'm just trying to text her each day. Mom, I'm still alive, you know?
SHERLOCK: Battling this perception of Lebanon as a dangerous place is one of the main jobs of Avedis Guidanian. He's the tourism minister. He says Beirut is more secure than Europe.
AVEDIS GUIDANIAN: They have the ISIS problem. We don't have them here in Beirut. Really we are more secure than them.
SHERLOCK: Guidanian wants tourists to branch out beyond the nightclubs. Leave Beirut, and you'll find crusader castles, vineyards, preserved Roman temples.
GUIDANIAN: We have so many places that if we can show them and promote them properly, we can really transform Lebanon to a heaven.
SHERLOCK: Lebanon still has many problems. It struggles to host Syria's refugee population. Corruption and bad infrastructure sparked a crisis that sees trash piled on the streets or dumped in the sea. Most tourists skate over this, but it's not for everyone. Natalie Jawwad is 8 years old and from Florida. She came here with her parents for a wedding and is not so impressed.
NATALIE JAWWAD: I want, like, happy action, no throwing stuff on the ground.
SHERLOCK: But she has found some things she likes.
NATALIE: The most thing that I like is downtown city because it has a lot of cool stuff in it, like squishies and a carnival and, like, painting stuff and toys.
SHERLOCK: Ruth Sherlock, NPR News, Beirut.
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