Friday, November 09, 2007

Lebanon launches interactive mapping Web site:

Lebanon launches interactive mapping Web site
By Nicholas Kimbrell
Special to The Daily Star

BEIRUT: Representatives from the Tourism Ministry, the Social and Cultural Development Association (IMNA), SRI International, USAID in Lebanon, and the Lebanese Army High Command met in Downtown Beirut on Wednesday to launch the new, interactive mapping Web site is the first free mapping engine of its kind in the Arab world. The Web site, not unlike Mapquest and Google Earth, offers directions to and from 15,000 popular points of interest across Lebanon. Lebanonmaps allows visitors to plan and edit trips to landmarks throughout the country, offering distance and time of travel estimates and lodging suggestions.

In a written statement, Jawad Adra from IMNA said, "When all this work is evaluated, it will be recognized for what it is, as the first comprehensive, interactive and progressive database of its kind in this area and a good example of successful collaboration between international organizations, national NGOs, and both private and public sectors." The Tourism Ministry hopes that Lebanonmaps will open all of Lebanon to foreign and domestic visitors alike. Citing the lack of readily available maps and directions to many of Lebanon's national treasures, the creators of the mapping engine hope to foster greater interest in national tourism, particularly to some of Lebanon's more remote, rural regions. "This new, interactive mapping Web site, removes [prior] obstacles," Raouf Youssef, USAID Lebanon mission director, said in a statement. "It offers everyone, free of charge, comprehensive coverage of the entire nation, and driving directions to thousands of points of interest. It also features tourism-focused interactive maps that include photographs and descriptions of tourism sites throughout the country."

Lebanon's tourism sector has shown only a slight decline despite the 2006 summer war with Israel and the current political crisis. Lebanon welcomed more than 1,062,000 visitors in 2006 and the slightly lower 2007 forecast demonstrates the resilience of the tourism sector. The tourism sector contributes an estimated 9 percent to Lebanon's GDP, comparable to 11 percent in Egypt and 8 percent in Jordan. However, the Tourism Ministry acknowledges tremendous room for growth. In 1974, tourism constituted 19.4 percent of Lebanon's GDP. After the news conference, Nada Sardouk, the director general of the Tourism Ministry, told The Daily Star that Lebanonmaps was intended primarily for "tourists and young Lebanese." The mapping engine successfully solves the "lack of information, communication and distribution" that had inhibited tourism across the country. "This is a scientific tool that will change the culture of tourism in Lebanon," she added. When asked how Lebanon maps compared to more advanced mapping engines like Google Maps and Mapquest, Sardouk said: "It's not our goal to become like [these] Web sites. Lebanonmaps is a national, cultural site, intended to facilitate the exploration of Lebanon." The Lebanonmaps project was funded primarily by USAID in Lebanon.

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