Beirut, Number One Tourist Destination In the World?

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November 23, 2009 By John English

It comes as an enormous surprise to those of us who remember the TV bulletins of the 1990s, but Beirut has been voted by the New York Times as the “number 1 tourist destination of the world”.

It comes as an enormous surprise to those of us who remember the TV bulletins of the 1990s, but Beirut has been voted by the New York Times as the "number 1 tourist destination of the world".

In 1995 there were no traffic lights, no road signs, no speed limits, no traffic police – in fact the roads were virtually lawless. Driversdrove armed, with guns, to threaten other drivers to get out the way.

Beirut underwent major reconstruction and the redesigned historic city center, marina, pubs and nightlife districts have once again rendered it a tourist attraction. The seafront Corniche, and downtown have been reconstructed. Martyrs' Square was once Beirut's "Ground Zero," the southernmost point of the old Green Line that divided Muslim West Beirut from Christian East Beirut. Now it hosts Virgin Megastore and Dunkin' Donuts.

Travel writers are saying Beirut is beautiful now, enjoying a golden age. Lebanon has vast mountains and great food and ancient ruins, friendly people, fashionable bars and underground jazz bands. They also boast its famous market at the Martyr's Place known as Souk el Barghout , where hundreds of tourists take a walk and enjoy a delightful meal , or even a cup of coffee at the numerous outdoor cafes available

The best times to visit Beirut are May-June and November-December, months with clear blue skies and relatively mild temperatures. What is amazing is that this transformation has happened despite recent history. In 2005 prime minister Rafik Hariri got blown up by a car bomb; in 2006 Israel hit Lebanon for a month with continuous bombing, blowing up the airport, highways, bridges, electricity sub-stations, and killing some 1,000 or so people. In winter 2008, Hezbollah gunmen took to the streets.

Nehme Abouzeid, the publisher of TimeOut Beirut is expecting record-breaking numbers of tourists next summer. "If everything stays the same... We always have to say that in Lebanon, because you never know. God willing..."

He started publishing Time Out in the spring of 2006, with a brand new office, a new editor, new staff. And then the Israeli bombardment began. "It just came out of nowhere. No one was expecting it. Even at the height of the war, the airport never closed. And then came the news: the airport was closed. It was so shocking."

The magazine closed for two years, but it's back now, talking up a "nightlife scene" which they say is brilliant. Gemmayzeh has now become Beirut's most chic area, with its trendy bars and huge SUVs and beautiful people, and where the Lebanese are fluent in three languages, English, French and Arabic.

This it the most amazing thing: travel writers are now saying that Beirut is "impossibly glamorous. The people so cosmopolitan. The nightlife so sophisticated. " Maybe because of the large expatriate scene linked to London and Paris and Sydney and LA, its big gay scene, free press and keen fashion sense.

Even Haret Hreik, the suburb where Hezbollah had its headquarters destroyed in 2006 is a tourist destination. You can swim and ski in the same day, visit some of the finest Roman ruins anywhere in the world.

Let’s hope it lasts!

Written by

John English


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