The Travel Detective

The Toughest Job in the Middle East: Minister of Tourism

Tourism MinistryJanuary 12, 2008

Let’s start with what’s going on in the Middle East. Depending on which reports you believe, Israeli troops are either on the Lebanese border, or have crossed it.

The evacuation continues of American troops from Lebanon. About 7,000 Americans have gotten mostly to the island of Cyprus, mostly by a charter cruise ship, although a lot of them have flown over by U.S. Marine headquarters helicopters.

If you know anybody who needs assistance in leaving Lebanon, the number to call is, at the Department of State, if you can get through, 888-407-4747. Or, here in this country of course, you can also dial it directly at 202-501-4444.

It’s just getting wilder and wilder because you cannot move one chess piece in the Middle East, without moving about 12 other chess pieces. That includes Syria, Jordan and Egypt, and, to a lesser extent right now, Saudi Arabia. But, the entire region right now is, in the most benign terms, unstable.

I love the Middle East. We’ve done this show over the last couple years from Beirut. We’ve done it a number of times from both Jordan and Egypt, I might add, and I can’t get enough of it. It’s an amazing place; however, it has been, throughout my entire lifetime, completely embroiled in conflict.

What’s probably the toughest job in the world right now—and I’m not talking about a physical job, but just a conceptual job—Minister of Tourism to Israel, Minister of Tourism to Lebanon, and Minister of Tourism to anywhere in the Middle East.

Lebanon tourismWhen you knock out three runways at a country’s main airport, you have cut them off in terms of travel and tourism, and in the process, you’ve cut them off economically. This is a very, very sad situation.

Ironically, Beirut was coming back. Why did the Civil War stop? We all remember what happened in 1983 with the marine barracks in Beirut. (if you don’t, click here)

Why did all the fighting suddenly stop a number of years later? When it was no longer economically viable to pursue those aims, and all the money went into re-building Beirut.

And I must tell you that Beirut itself, currently, in terms of the areas that have been re-built, is still intact. All that new infrastructure that has been built—they call it Solidaire. The Four Seasons is building a new hotel there and that hotel has not been touched. Other people are developing other hotels and resorts there. Of course, the legendary hotel The Commodore—the one where all of us journalists hung out in during the Civil War and later—is very much still there.

The most bizarre thing occurred five years ago, as I was sitting in the lobby of the bar of The Commodore Hotel in Beirut. I actually sat down and had drinks with a representative of Hezbollah.

People need to know that the underlying problem right now, with this conflict, is that Hezbollah is indeed a military operation, but that it is also an extremely popular, powerful political party in Lebanon, providing for the health insurance, welfare, jobs, municipalities—you name it—of myriad neighborhoods and communities within that country.

Hezbollah enjoys tremendous popular support, despite that what’s happening now is—just call it what it is—it’s a war.

My thoughts and hopes go out to all the people who have been displaced; not just the Americans who have to leave, but far worse, the people who truly live there, and who are watching certain neighborhoods being reduced to rubble—imagine the infrastructure itself—bridges, highways, and as we mentioned earlier, the airports. It’s a terribly sad state of affairs.

Here’s another interesting development that no one’s been able to confirm, but it is an interesting development nonetheless: The government of Syria is allowing Americans to come into Syria escaping from Lebanon, without having to have visas.


Cruise Ship HawaiiIt was a very busy week in the news. The Crown Princess had severe steering problems off the coast of Florida resulting in an unusually heavy list at speed. The crew was unable to control it fast enough, and this caused numerous injuries to the point that some people had to be air-lifted off.

The cruise line itself is taking a pretty big hit on this. No one really knows the extent of the damage, but we’ve got 93 people injured, some of them very seriously.

Modern cruise ships are operated today not with steering wheels, but with joysticks. It’s all electronic and hydraulic. There’s a reasonably good chance the ship was actually on auto-pilot with one person at the bridge on the top at the time of the incident. Their ability and the speed at which they were able to recover from this is certainly going to be called into question.

If you can’t override a system manually—that is a huge problem. And it’s going to cost Princess at least $10 million in terms of refunds and repairs. Minimum. The NTSB of course, still investigating that case.

The good news for buyers—that means you guys—not just because of this incident, but because of the excess capacity in the cruise line business these days, means there are a lot of bargains out there.

Listen to this: the Queen Mary II, the colossal cruise ship, offering great discounts on a departure date of August 17. Or how about this? An eight-day east-bound trans-Atlantic crossing New York, Hamburg is $1,299. Considering what airfare’s been these days, you might just want to travel to Europe by ship!

Taken from Peter Greenberg Worldwide Radio.

Looking for more great deals on travel? Check out our new Travel Deals section.

Thinking you might want to avoid cruise ships, but still love the sea? Check out Taking the Slow Boat: Freighter Trips.

Check out great affordable destinations for 2008 in Peter’s column on MSNBC.