By Oliver Holmes
JEITA, Lebanon (Reuters) - All too often the center of Middle East upheaval, Lebanon has taken a back seat as a wave of revolts surge through the region. But the small country is not immune to the tumult around it and tourism here has taken a hit.
At the bottom of the Nahr al-Kalb valley, a trickle of tourists get almost-exclusive access to the Jeita Grotto, karstic limestone caves which stretch more than 10 km into the mountains.
Deep in the cave, small metal guideboats make their way noiselessly along a smooth underground river, rarely passing each other and never filled to capacity.
The sound of droplets from giant stalactites hitting the water can be heard and the caves are lit up by blue and orange lights, specially adapted to emit virtually no heat to prevent mosses from growing in the caves and ruining the delicate stone structures.
"We've had a very bad summer," a Jeita Grotto employee whispers, as if the quiet of the cave has awarded it a church-like respect. "During previous summers, we used to get 3,000 to 4,000 visitors a day to the caves, now it's more like 700."
She said tourists from the Gulf and other Arab countries make up the majority of visitors.
"But we've been having big problems."
The biggest problem, this time, comes from neighboring Syria where President Bashar al-Assad has been accused of killing at least 2,900 civilians in a military crackdown against pro-democracy protests which started in March.
Around 600,000 Arab tourists drive into Lebanon yearly through Syria -- the only country Lebanon shares an open border with as the small country is in a state of war with Israel. Cutting through Syria is a cheap option for most regional tourists and they can take the whole family for the summer.
But the instability has shrunk tourist traffic through Syria, which accounts for a quarter of all tourist arrivals to Lebanon, and Arab arrivals on the Syrian-Lebanese border are down 90 percent.
Employees at the grotto say 10 to 15 buses used to arrive each day, full of Arab tourists who had come through Syria. Now two to three buses arrive, they say, and there are no more queues for the underground boat rides.
TOURISM 20 PERCENT DOWN
"Lebanon saw a 20 percent decrease in international arrivals for the first half of 2011," John Kester, who observes industry trends at the United Nations World Tourism Organization (UNWTO).
The second half of 2011 could be much worse as the situation in Syria has since escalated and data from Lebanon's summer high season has not been released.
"No country is immune from what is happening in the surrounding region and most people have to travel overland (into Lebanon)," Kester said.
"Lebanon is affected indirectly, not because of what is happening in the country itself."
Western tourists have shied away from the Middle East after a wave of popular revolts spread through the region toppling leaders in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya. Even countries that have remained relatively stable, such as Lebanon and Jordan, have seen a decline in arrivals for the United States and Europe.
The Jeita Grotto's general manager, Nabil Haddad, said visitors from Europe and elsewhere outside the Middle East often include Lebanon as part of a regional tour.
"But when Syria is canceled, Lebanon is automatically cut out," Haddad said.
In an attempt to boost tourism Lebanon has been campaigning to have the Jeita Grotto chosen as one of seven 'wonders of nature' in an international competition.
The cave system, which is home to the longest stalactite on the planet at over 8 meters (yards), was entered into the 'New7Wonders of Nature' contest in 2007 and Lebanon is trying to shore up votes in the global poll which ends next month.
"It is an exercise in PR," Tourism Minister Fadi Abboud told Reuters. "We are trying our best to make people vote," added the minister, who persuaded his political allies to attend a cabinet meeting in T-shirts declaring: "I voted for Jeita Grotto".
Jeita has made it into the 28 finalists, along with Tanzania's Kilimanjaro and the Mud Volcanoes in Azerbaijan, but with tourism numbers down Haddad is worried.
"Now we are in the final stages," he said. "People in Lebanon have not taken it very seriously. Other countries have done things to promote their (natural wonders) but we don't get the feeling that our vote is being promoted," he added.
Some Lebanese say they will not vote for the grotto as it is too expensive, at over $12, for many Lebanese to visit.
BUSINESS AS USUAL
Lebanon has long been plagued by years of conflict, first during a 15-year civil war and then in 2006 when 1,200 Lebanese, mostly civilians, were killed during a month-long war with Israel.
The country's Roman ruins, ski resorts and beaches, 24-hour nightlife, cuisine and joie de vivre atmosphere make Lebanon enormously attractive to tourists from around the world during periods of stability.
"Lebanon has always been a destination with big ups and downs. It always has the ability to recover," said UNWTO's Kester. "Last year tourism was up 70 percent, this year it is down 20 percent."
Kester said the biggest issue for Lebanon was how it will adapt to the crisis in Syria.
"Tourism in Egypt went down 40 percent this year, but we expect it to recover. Lebanon will not. They might have to open up new corridors into the country."
However, Tourism Minister Abboud remains optimistic.
"You have to adapt. Most so-called third world countries do," he said. "If you are a farmer, you depend on the weather. If you work in the tourism sector, you depend on security and the political situation."
(Edited by Paul Casciato)