BEIRUT, Lebanon, AP — Thousands of foreigners are packing ships in Beirut’s port, and long lines of cars are full of tourists.
But all those visitors are clamoring to get out of Lebanon _ to escape the outbreak of fighting between Israel and Hezbollah _ crushing Lebanon’s hopes for a record tourist season.
Hotels had been booked, beaches and mountain resorts had been packed, and free-spending tourists had jammed Beirut, signaling Lebanon’s recovery from a turbulent year following the February 2005 assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri.
Tourism Minister Joe Sarkis had predicted a record 1.6 million visitors by the end of the year and revenues topping $2 billion. This week, he was warning of hundreds of millions of dollars in losses and repair costs from Israel’s air assault, triggered by Hezbollah’s July 12 capture of two Israeli soldiers.
The fighting took both foreign visitors and Lebanese by surprise.
“We thought we were making a well-informed decision by coming here,” said Holly Robbins, a 21-year-old student from Ridgewood, N.J., who now lives in the neighboring island of Cyprus.
Robbins decided to leave after Israel began attacking, but she was stranded at the airport after warplanes bombed the runways.
“I’m terrified. I never experienced anything like this,” Robbins said before leaving by car for Syria, where she hoped to catch a flight to Larnaca, Cyprus.
The overland trip has become dangerous because Israeli bombs and rockets have hit the road to Syria. Israeli also imposed a naval blockade, although evacuation ships are being allowed to dock.
Lebanon had been enjoying a period of relative calm after a wave of bombings that followed the withdrawal of Syrian troops under international and domestic pressure. The withdrawal, which came amid accusations that Syria was involved in Hariri’s assassination, ended a 29-year occupation.
A small country with no natural resources, Lebanon relies on tourism for about 12 percent of its national income. Its open society is a magnet for residents of conservative Arab countries, where alcohol is mostly banned and partying in public is largely frowned upon.
Lebanon, with its relatively cool weather, offers shopping, drinking and seafood shacks where customers dine with their feet dangling in the Mediterranean. Rowdy beach parties often end only when the workday starts.
That scene shut down abruptly with the onslaught of fighting. Arab tourists fled to the border with Syria in long lines of cars. Liza Minelli, British rock band Deep Purple and Lebanese diva Fairouz canceled summer concerts. The U.S. and other countries are evacuating thousands of their citizens.
“There is a mass exodus from Lebanon, the hotels are becoming empty,” Sarkis said.
The closure of the Beirut airport alone is costing Lebanon millions of dollars a day, said Amr Abdel-Ghaffar of the U.N. World Tourism Organization in Madrid.
But Robbins, the American student, said she hopes she can return someday.
“This does not make Lebanon less attractive to us. It just makes foreign policy seem uglier,” she said.