(Byblos) In the ancient city of Byblos, north of Beirut, shops and restaurants have been waiting for customers for more than a month: the hotel and catering sector has been hit hard by the war between Israel and Palestinian Hamas , which extended towards southern Lebanon.
“I opened this bottle of whiskey two weeks ago, and it’s not empty yet. Before, we needed a bottle a day, or every other day,” laments Richard Alam, a 19-year-old bartender.
Although the exchange of fire between Israel and Hezbollah is limited to the southern border, many fear an extension of hostilities and several countries have called on their nationals to leave Lebanon, following the outbreak of war between Israel and Hamas on October 7 .
This war took place when in Lebanon the tourism sector, exhausted by an unprecedented economic crisis which has lasted for four years, had begun to recover last summer.
“Byblos, and especially the old souks, depend on tourism,” explains Richard Alam, in a suit and bow tie, behind his deserted counter. “We went from 40 to 50 tables a day at least (.) to seven at most.”
In her souvenir shop, Mona Moujahed also struggles to find customers, while the old souks with their cobbled streets of the thousand-year-old city attract many visitors in normal times.
She says she has “no job, no money. As you see, there is not a soul alive,” regrets this 60-year-old woman, drinking coffee alone in front of her shop.
“We had just turned the page on four difficult years and gained new momentum, but unfortunately the war ruined everything,” laments Tony Ramy, president of the union of owners of restaurants, nightclubs, cafes and pastries in Lebanon.
Half of the establishments had to close their doors because of the economic crisis that hit the country in 2019, he explains. “Since October 7, we have seen a dramatic drop in customers (.) up to 80% on weekdays and 30 to 50% on weekends.”
Daily exchanges of fire in the south have left at least 88 dead since October 7, most of them fighters from Hezbollah, a powerful pro-Iranian Lebanese group which supports Hamas, according to an AFP count.
Since the start of hostilities, the national airline, Middle East Airlines, has reduced its flights by more than half. And the number of passengers boarding its flights from Middle Eastern countries was down 54% from last year, according to spokeswoman Rima Makkawi.
In the once bustling shopping district of Hamra in Beirut, Ayman Nasser El Dine, manager of a four-star hotel, speaks of hundreds of cancellations since the start of the war.
“We have zero new bookings. If this continues, it will be a disaster,” he adds in the deserted lobby of the Cavalier Hotel.
Hotels were impatiently awaiting the end-of-year holiday period, explains Mr. Nasser El Dine, specifying that his establishment had been overbooked for the entire month of December before the start of hostilities.
The hotel occupancy rate has fallen to between zero and 7%, compared to around 45% before the war, says Pierre Achkar, head of the hoteliers’ union. “Reservations have been canceled for the next two or three months.”
Despite the growing challenges, Achkar says he is confident the sector could bounce back once calm is restored.
“We are a strong-willed people who were born and raised in war.”
Lebanon has endured 15 years of civil war, a 2006 conflict between Israel and Hezbollah, a massive explosion at the port of Beirut in 2020 and one of the worst economic crises in recent world history, according to the World Bank.
“If we did not have a long experience in crisis management, the sector would have gone bankrupt a long time ago,” believes Pierre Achkar.