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Letter from Lebanon: To travel or not to travel

Letter from Lebanon: To travel or not to travel

Gemmayzeh, Beirut

Column and images by Yasmine Ryan

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(BEIRUT – 1 March 2007) – The lights are out and nobody’s in. At first glance anyway. Security gates are pulled down over the shop window of the Lebanese travel agency in central Paris. Litour, located on Avenue de l’Opéra, is a longstanding favourite of Lebanese expats travelling home to visit friends and family. And now it’s gone bankrupt.

The explanation is given in the form of an apologetic notice taped to the window, ‘Due to the tragic events of July and August 2006, as well as the actions of certain management…’ Downstairs, there are signs of life. Employees are busy calling clients and filing paperwork.

Finally someone comes to the door and promises that my deposit will be refunded, but there is no chance of getting my ticket to Beirut. They’ve gone into liquidation and are forbidden from continuing trade. Yes they are hopeful that Litour will open its doors again soon.

The Armenian-Lebanese friend who recommended Litour to me in the first place, Vasken Boyadjian, had purchased his tickets with them for August 2006. When the war broke out, Litour did the honourable thing and refunded all their clients tickets and took the loss themselves. Like many members of the Lebanese Diaspora, Vasken is not going back to Lebanon this summer.

Five days later, the woman sitting next to me on the plane is, unsurprisingly, Lebanese. She lives in Spain. She says she was here with her husband and two young daughters last year in July, when the Israelis attacked. She was visiting her elderly mother northern Lebanon, but they were forced to leave on the boats. She says she’s not sure it’s safe to come back, ‘but my mother is 87, I need to see her’.

The tourist industry, like many others in Lebanon, is still suffering from the 2006 Israel-Lebanon Conflict and from the subsequent internal strife. But there are still some tourists. At Talal’s New Hotel in Gemmayzeh, there are a dozen or so backpackers from Japan and South Korea. Most are doing Lebanon as one of many stops.

Oh Gyu Hwan is a South Korean backpacker visiting Lebanon

26 year old Japanese traveller Kanae Uehara and her Korean boyfriend Oh Gyu Hwan, 28, have been travelling around Europe for 7 months. Oh Gyu Hwan explains that, in spite of all the chaos, Lebanon remains a destination of choice in the region. For them, Beirut retains its crown as the Paris of the Middle East.

Kanae Uehara admits that her family is worried about what they see on the news about Beirut. However, the itinerate voyager believes that the image Lebanon is given by the media is exaggerated: ‘in fact it’s not like it seems on TV’. They went skiing yesterday and tomorrow head over the border for a day in Damascus. Today it was bombed-out buildings in and around Khiam in southern Lebanon.

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Yasmine Ryan is a graduate of the University of Auckland, in Political Studies and French language. She is currently interning with a Lebanese newspaper in Beirut, as part of her Masters degree in International Journalism at the Institut d’Etudes Politiques, Aix-en-Provence.

ENDS

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