BEIRUT: Lebanon expects over 1.3 million tourists this year thanks to the positive political atmosphere following the election of a new president, outgoing Tourism Minister Joe Sarkis said Friday. The minister made the remarks during a tour of Rafik Hariri International Airport, adding that most of the hotels in Beirut and the mountain are fully booked.  According to the figures released by Rafik Hariri International Airport, arriving passengers totaled 598,392 in the first five months of the year, while departing passengers amounted to a higher 633,255.

The minister said Lebanon is heading toward a promising tourism season, adding that the Tourism Ministry plans to launch widespread media campaign to encourage foreigners and Arabs to visit Lebanon.  "Once a new government is formed, I expect Lebanon to experience a steady rise in the number of visitors," he said.  In 2007, less than a million visitors arrived in Lebanon and authorities said most of the arrivals were Lebanese working in oil rich Gulf states and Africa.

Tourism represents over 18 percent of the country’s GDP.

Sarkis said earlier Lebanon could generate more than $3 billion a year if the tourism season were good.

"We have missed many opportunities in the past. Now it is the time to make up for the loss," Sarkis said adding that all government agencies along with tour operators were ready to receive thousands of tourists this summer.

"The ministry has instructed all its staff to handle all the complains from tourists arriving to Lebanon and the Economy Ministry will make sure that restaurants do not raise their prices randomly just to make a quick profit from the visitors," Sarkis added.

Airport authorities said that the bulk of foreign visitors coming to Lebanon are from Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates. – The Daily Star