Saturday, August 1, 2009

Greetings From Sunny Beirut


In the 1970s, before rival ethnic groups obtained reliable supplies of bombs and automatic weapons, Lebanon was mostly known to the outside world as a Mediterranean vacation postcard. Some of that is coming back now.

BBC News talked to the tourism minister and found that an estimated 2 million tourists are visiting Lebanon this summer. That’s a large number of tourists anywhere, but in Lebanon, it’s startling. The population of Lebanon is barely 4 million, and such a large influx of tourists is enough to rescue the country’s economy.

The New York Times was ready to take a chance on Lebanon back in January when it ranked Beirut at #1 in its 44 Places to Go in 2009. This week, a CNN report presents Beirut as the location of major music festivals and a “world-class party scene.” All that is true, says Liliane, a software developer in Lebanon, and Lebanon was rarely as sad and dreary as the war news made it look: “We partied while there was war,” she says. It is not that Lebanon’s political troubles are behind it. But after a peaceful election, the hope that the quiet could extend through the summer was enough to bring tourists roaring back in record numbers.

Everyone is noticing Lebanon because of the striking contrast between its internal conflicts and its resurgence, especially in tourism. There are two morals we can take away from this story. The first is that war is not natural. During a war, it can sometimes seem that we are doomed to see the war continue forever. War, though, can keep going only as long as wealthy forces keep feeding the conflict. Without massive ongoing financial support, conflicts tend to fade. When the financial underpinnings of war go away, the transition from all-out war to petty squabble can happen so quickly that it surprises everyone.

The second is that participants and pundits alike consistently underestimate the costs of war. The dead, wounded, and displaced people and ruined buildings are bad enough, but many of the effects of war extend far beyond the time and place of the fighting. The worried tourists who can’t make the trip to the beach are also experiencing one of the costs of war. The loss to each individual, for the people who never see the war, is so small we may be tempted to say it doesn’t count. But so many people are affected in so many ways that these costs too are enormous if you add them up.

It is hard to put the postcard view of Beirut side by side with the war news pictures, knowing that the two images represent alternative outcomes for the same place. The difference you see between the two images tells you the cost of war. Let’s hope we can keep the postcards coming.