BEIRUT, Lebanon — With 2 million tourists forecasted to visit Lebanon this year — providing this troubled and cash-strapped Mediterranean country with much needed tax revenue to pay off its enormous $50 billion public debt — government officials are doing their best to clean up Beirut’s reputation as an unstable and dangerous city, in an effort to woo even more summer visitors.
After sectarian clashes erupted last week following the designation of a prominent Sunni leader as Prime Minister, various political parties began calling for demilitarizing Beirut and transforming it into a “safe city”.
Nonviolence activist Rana Karam says that “various civil society organizations have been promoting such an initiative for years, and it finally looks like the project is getting some traction.”
Interior Minister Ziad Baroud has further proposed putting more policemen on the streets in an effort to alleviate Beirut’s chronic traffic problems, and has also asked drivers to refrain from honking their horns while in traffic.
“If you look at most cities in Europe and the United States, you see that there are severe fines for honking your car horn if there is no urgent need to do so,” said Baroud spokesman Fadi Antabli. “In Lebanon, people honk their horn while they are sitting in traffic, just out of frustration. And then others join in, and pretty soon the entire avenue is honking. This is a very bad habit that the Interior Ministry is trying to change.”
In addition to cracking down on flagrant honkers, the ministry has also been enforcing some other image-enhancing initiatives. “We’ve asked restaurant owners not to serve as much garlic alongside their grilled meat dishes as they normally do,” said Antabli. “Foreigners — especially northern and western Europeans — are not used to these quantities of garlic, and we want to ensure that tourists are not put off by bad breath as they tour our historic sites.”
Tourism Minister Elie Marouni announced a few similar initiatives last week, aimed at maximizing tourist comfort. “We are asking all Lebanese men between the ages of 18 and 65 to keep their shirts buttoned up as close to the neck as possible, minimizing the amount of chest hair spill-out,” said Marouni’s spokeswoman Nada Feghali. “Also, taxi drivers are kindly asked to trim their pinky finger nails, or, at the very least, to refrain from using them as Q-Tips.”
Also, in a joint project sponsored by the Ministries of the Environment, Energy, and Tourism, a nationwide publicity campaign was launched last month aiming to educate Lebanese on how to respond to tourists when asked about the deep electricity rationing.
“If somebody asks you why the power goes out every day for several hours, just say that this is Lebanon’s effort to “go green” and combat global warming,” says the smiling TV presenter in a series of advertisements.
Early signs suggest that these initiatives may be working. Tourists surveyed upon leaving Beirut have consistently remarked upon the “minty breath” of the Lebanese and their deep eco-conciousness.
“I think it’s just wonderful that they are so committed to recycling,” said Fran Newhouse, an American woman visiting Lebanon for the first time from Minnesota. “I mean, that enormous mountain of recycled bottles and cans outside of Saida is just amazing. I hope the Greenpeace ship comes soon and takes all the recycled materials away so that the Lebanese can have their beach back. Heaven knows, they deserve it.”