BEIRUT (AP) — The roadblocks and sandbags are back, cafes and hotels are nearly empty and many of the tourists are gone.
Anxiety is gripping Lebanon following a spate of suicide bombings, and an ongoing security sweep targeting militants — some of them who had been staying in four-star Beirut hotels — has triggered a wave of cancellations of hotel and flight bookings in a country already on edge.
The militants involved are said by security officials to be part of a network of alleged terrorist sleeper cells planning suicide bombings targeting security leaders and civilians alike. That has fueled concerns that Sunni extremists surging in Iraq and Syria were taking their fight to Lebanon next.
Along Beirut's Mediterranean corniche, crowds are thinner. Not far away is the seaside Duroy hotel — one side of it still slightly blackened after a suicide bomber blew himself up during a police raid on his room on June 25. At the high-end Beirut Souks shopping complex in the downtown business district, the passages between shops are nearly empty of shoppers.
"In the month or two before the incident at the Duroy, we were seeing a lot of Saudi, Iraqi tourists," said a 36-year-old bookstore manager in downtown Beirut. "We really thought that the start of this summer was better than the last one."
"Then the bombings and arrests happened, and we didn't see them anymore," she added, asking to remain anonymous because she was not authorized by her employer to speak to journalists.
Lebanon, a tiny country with a history of civil strife, has been profoundly affected by the civil war raging in neighboring Syria over the past three years. In addition to the influx of well over 1 million Syrian refugees to the country, the conflict has inflamed tensions among Lebanon's long-feuding sects, causing violence, including street clashes and bombings.
The country is sharply split between those who back the overwhelmingly Sunni rebels fighting to topple Syrian President Bashar Assad, and those who support him, including the Shiite militant group Hezbollah, which has sent its fighters to shore up Assad's forces against the rebels.
The recent cancellations cap a downward trend in the number of tourists to Lebanon since the conflict in Syria began. Tourism Minister Michel Pharaon said the number of tourists in 2013 dropped by 1 million compared to the 2.3 million tourists who visited Lebanon in 2010. The number of visitors for the first five months of 2014 was down 9 percent from the same period last year, though the ministry had no figures for June and July.
After enjoying relative calm for nearly three months, a new wave of violence erupted in the middle of last month, coinciding with dramatic events in nearby Iraq, where militants of the al-Qaida splinter group called the Islamic State have taken over large parts of the country. In the space of one week beginning June 20, a suicide attacker blew up his car near a checkpoint in eastern Lebanon, another near a cafe in southern Beirut and a third blew himself up at the Duroy to avoid arrest.