Beirut, one-time pearl of the Orient, is reclaiming its lustre, wooing some of the world's top luxury hotels to set up shop after a record year for tourism - and peace - in city once synonymous with danger.
Le Gray, the newest of the ultra-chic London-based Campbell Gray boutique hotels, as well as old classics like the Four Seasons and Grand Hyatt are only a few of the posh establishments on the list.
Advertisement"Every major company is trying to come to Beirut. It is the destination where everybody wants to be," said general manager Stefan Simkovics of the Four Seasons. The group opened its 146-million-dollar (102-million-euro) Beirut venture earlier this month, with 230 rooms and the highest rooftop swimming pool in the city.
"Before the war, Beirut was the gateway to the Middle East," he told AFP, referring to Lebanon's devastating 1975-1990 civil conflict.
"Beirut was until the mid-70s the Paris of the Middle East, the pearl of the Orient, and today the city is reclaiming its position as the place everyone wants to be."
Lebanon does seems to have turned the page on its turbulent past, at least for the time being.
After a war with Israel in 2006, a battle between the army and an Al-Qaeda-inspired group in 2007 and sectarian killings in 2008, calm has returned to the small eastern Mediterranean state of four million people.
"Construction for some hotels started in 2004 but was halted in 2005 after the assassination of former prime minister Rafiq Hariri," said Pierre Ashkar, who heads Lebanon's hotel owners' syndicate.
Today, a statue stands as a reminder of the seafront car bombing that killed Hariri in the hotel district.
Just a stone's throw from the landmark Holiday Inn, which remains abandoned and bullet-scarred in silent testimony to the civil war, stands the Ramada, which opened in 2008.
Nearby, Beirut's waterfront Hilton awaits its own glitzy opening and the Grand Hyatt, the Landmark and Kempinski Summerland are set to open between 2010 and 2013.
The arrival of a record two million tourists in 2009 was an encouraging sign for Lebanon, which the international media now hails as a top travel destination.
Beirut headed the New York Times list of top vacation destinations in January 2009 and was put among the top 10 cities for 2009 by the Lonely Planet travel guides for what it called its charm and dynamism.
Earlier this month, The Guardian in London announced: "Beirut is back ... and it's beautiful."
"The quality of life here, the beauty, the excitement -- it is the perfect tourist destination in the region," Simkovics said.
Most visitors are Lebanese expatriates and Arab tourists from the oil-rich Gulf, but the country is also attracting European holiday makers.
Around 60 percent of clients in Lebanese hotels are Gulf tourists, according to Simkovics, with Lebanese expatriates accounting for much of the rest.
"Clearly, when the country is stable, it is functional on all levels, including tourism," said Hector de Galard, general manager of Le Gray, Campbell Gray's fourth hotel worldwide.
"This is just the beginning, and international companies are increasingly feeling encouraged to settle here," said de Galard, whose room prices range from 495 to 5,000 dollars a night.
De Galard said Le Grey was fully booked during the Christian and Muslim holiday seasons at the end of 2009.
And while not everyone can afford the luxury of places like Le Gray or The Four Seasons, Beirut's increasing capacity to accommodate wealthier visitors has been welcomed by entrepreneurs.
"There are 7,000 rooms in Beirut right now," said Ashkar. "In the next three years, we expect an increase of 3,000 rooms."
De Galard said the race was on to boost room numbers. "Demand is on the rise, especially during the summer," he said. "If Beirut wants to host an international conference of 2,000 people, the city must be prepared."
Although investors are aware of the risks they run in Lebanon, optimism runs high for the moment.
"We always knew that Lebanon was not an easy country," said de Galard. "But we also know that if something happens tomorrow, the country will bounce right back."
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