BEIRUT (Reuters) – More people have visited Lebanon since Saudi Arabia lifted its travel warning in February, pointing to a “promising summer” ahead, Lebanese Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri said on Wednesday.
A fall in visitors from Saudi Arabia and its Gulf allies has hit Lebanon’s tourism industry, once a mainstay of a now-battered economy that Hariri’s new government has pledged to revive.
Saudi Arabia was once a major supporter both of its political allies in Beirut, chiefly Hariri, and of the Lebanese state. However, mindful of its overarching rivalry with Iran, Riyadh stepped back as Iran’s Lebanese ally, the political and military Hezbollah movement, grew in strength.
Saudi Arabia had been advising its citizens since 2011 to avoid Lebanon, citing Hezbollah’s influence and instability from the war in neighbouring Syria.
“Without doubt the Saudi leadership’s decision … had the most impact in increasing the number of visitors to Lebanon recently, which gives the best proof of a promising summer,” Hariri said at a Beirut conference attended by the head of Saudi Arabia’s King Salman humanitarian centre.
Hariri also said he hoped that a pledge from Riyadh to help Lebanese families in need would spark a series of agreements between the two countries.
With pillars of the economy such as tourism and real estate in the doldrums, Lebanon has suffered years of low economic growth, and run up one of the world’s heaviest public debt burdens.
Saudi ties with Lebanon hit a low in November 2017, when Hariri was held against his will in Riyadh, announcing his resignation in a TV statement.
After French intervention, Hariri returned to Lebanon and withdrew the resignation, resolving the crisis. Though Hariri has always denied having been held in Saudi Arabia, French President Emmanuel Macron publicly confirmed it last year.
(Reporting by Ellen Francis; Editing by Kevin Liffey)