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Lebanon welcomes "boobs and booze" tourists

But do they actually help the economy?

People sunbathe at the water's edge of a beach resort, in front of the famed Pigeon Rock in Beirut, Jan. 8, 2010. (Cynthia Karam/Reuters)

BEIRUT, Lebanon — Lebanon is bracing for an invasion this summer.

It will not involve Israeli tanks rolling across the border, but an estimated 2 million pleasure-seekers spilling out from the airport into the tiny country's congested roads.

"It is good for the country," said one shopkeeper from Beirut as he contemplated the forthcoming traffic jams. But  as ministers meet to prepare a logistical response, and an extra 10,000 services staff are being trained, some are starting to question this commonly held assumption.

A huge buzz has surrounded the post-civil-war resurgence of the tourist industry in Lebanon, which the World Council on Travel and Tourism has just ranked the fastest growing in the world. The 2006 war with Israel and the 2008 street fighting in Beirut seemed to threaten the trend, but last year — during which The New York Times named Beirut the No. 1 place to visit — tourist numbers in Lebanon rose an estimated 39 percent. With political stability looking set to continue, a further 20 percent increase is expected this year.

In Beirut's downtown area, opposite the newly constructed Four Seasons hotel, a poster proudly displays a quote from the Financial Times that "visitors are flocking back to Lebanon"  beneath the slogan "Beirut is back on the map!"

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The billions of dollars generated by tourism are estimated to have contributed up to 25 percent of Lebanon’s GDP, although there are no precise figures available. Economists say the benefits are mainly being captured by a wealthy elite of hotel, restaurant and beach club owners.

"It’s a temporary money-making machine for the few," said Markus Marktanner, an economist at the American University of Beirut (AUB). According to Marktanner, Lebanon’s tourism boom is mostly driven by Arab tourists wanting to take advantage of the country’s climate, permissive attitudes and the availability of alcohol — what he dubbed "boobs and booze tourism." This type of tourism, Marktanner said, creates only low-quality jobs and does not significantly develop the economy.

Jad Chaaban, president of the Lebanese Economic Association, shares Marktanners skepticism about the industry’s contribution to sustainable development, pointing out that it relies on seasonal
workers, employed on an informal basis, with no employment rights. "This trend is dangerous," he said, explaining that people take out loans in anticipation of summer earnings, which are by no means guaranteed. "What if you have a bad season, or a war?"

Prices on everyday good and services are meanwhile expected to be forced up by at least 2 percent this summer, according to Kamal Hamdan, an independent economic analyst. "The poor are paying the bill," he said.

For these dubious economic benefits, the Lebanese have to put up with huge additional demands on public infrastructure and services, which are already struggling to cope with the native population’s needs. This is particularly true in the case of transport.