The world’s largest passenger jet landed at Beirut’s international airport on Thursday, bringing with it hope for a revival of Lebanon’s vital tourism sector.
The one-off Emirates Airbus A380 flight from Dubai was an acknowledgement of the substantial passenger traffic between Lebanon and Gulf nations, where many Lebanese nationals work and more pass through to destinations farther afield.
Emirates said it scheduled the flight, the first of its kind to carry paying passengers, to see if Beirut’s Rafik Hariri International Airport was ready to handle regular A380 service.
Lebanese officials hope the results are positive, as tourist arrivals climb to levels last seen in 2010, before the uprising in neighboring Syria the following year raised fears of violent spillover.
Lebanon welcomed 1.85 million tourists in 2017, according to the Tourism Ministry, the most since 2.16 million came in 2010.
There are nine flights daily from Dubai to Beirut, on three different carriers.
Tourism is one of the key pillars of Lebanon’s economy, accounting for 19 percent of the country’s GDP, according to the U.K.-based World Travel and Tourism Council.
However, Beirut’s Rafik Hariri International Airport, Lebanon’s only commercial airfield, is sorely out-of-date and lines at security can stretch for hours in the summer months, when throngs of expatriates visit the country.
The airport, renovated after the 1975-1990 civil war, was designed to handle 6 million passengers annually. In 2017, it saw over 8 million, according to the airport’s research department. Its gate areas are grimy and gloomy – a poor reflection of politicians’ outsized ambitions for the national tourism industry.
Lebanon’s Cabinet and the country’s flagship airline, Middle East Airlines, are considering two plans to expand and improve the airport’s facilities, one costing $88 million and the other $200 million. Their aim is to expand capacity to 10 million passengers annually by 2020 and then support continued growth beyond that.