Lebanon: Up from the Ashes

The country of cedar trees is once again attracting tourists, but, unlike before, the majority today are coming from the Gulf and are contributing to the buoyant tourism industry in Lebanon.

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By  Massoud Derhally Published  October 6, 2002

|~||~||~|Beirut was once dubbed “the Paris of the East”. Lebanon, the biblical ‘land of milk and honey,’ was a cultural crossroads. But all that changed in 1975. A 15-year civil war sparked sectarian bitterness and, aggravated by the Israeli invasion in 1982, shattered everything the Lebanese people and the Arab world loved about the country.

Since the end of the war, in 1990, things have changed. Much of Beirut has reverted to favourite pre-war pursuits: enjoying life and making money and the Lebanese way of life is becoming contagious. The country’s 250km of Mediterranean coastline and the seafront that was once the site of Beirut’s best hotels is again buzzing with people.

When visiting today, it is difficult to not find yourself inexplicably drawn to Beirut’s contradictory nature and spend endless hours exploring the city streets that expose you to the fascinating mixture of eastern and western cultures, the old and new architecture. It is precisely this experience that Lebanon is aggressively marketing year round.

Arabs, have not had it easy since the September 11 attacks, yet Lebanon has been able to bank on the difficulties of getting visas to Europe and the US. There is certainly evidence that the country is regaining lost ground from peak times prior to 1975. Hotels that became vantage points for snipers during the civil war are today full of tourists. Nada Ghaoui, head of media relations of the Phoenicia Intercontinental hotel, a landmark in Lebanon that saw more than its share of fighting, says Arab visitors today far outweigh the Europeans and the five star hotel is reaping dividends from the upsurge in intra Arab tourism.

Occupancy during August alone ranged between 80% to100% everyday of the month and on average August 2002 had an increase of 15% compared to August 2001, she said. “A lot of companies from the Gulf are organising conferences at the hotel and we are trying to take advantage of what we call conference tourism, especially since we had the Arab League summit here and now the Francophone conference,” says Ghaoui.
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Tourists to Lebanon are not all coming from Europe. “In general 75% of people coming from the Gulf want international 4 and 5 star hotels,” says Pierre Ashqar head of the syndicate of hotel owners. “In Beirut occupancy is always over 60% and during the summer it is 85%.”

International tourism [non Arab] has been non existent, according to Ashqar, because of travel advisory warnings on Lebanon by some Western countries and international media reporting on fighting in the south of Lebanon, says Ashqar. “The good thing is that since 9/11, intra Arab tourism has been growing very fast. We have a category of people who started coming to Lebanon, a middle class that was not coming to Lebanon before 9/11. Their destination before was London, Geneva, New York but now they are coming to Lebanon.”

Figures from the general civil aviation department show traffic at Beirut’s international airport for the month of July 2002 alone increasing to 2,800 flights. Lebanon has been shrewd to capitalise on Gulf tourists exploring their destination options and provide an outlet for people accustomed to spending their summers at the Rivieras of France, Italy and Spain.

In July alone the country received 165,178 visitors from the Gulf, a significant number when you consider that Lebanon has attracted a total of 535,094 tourists up to July 2002, says Nada Sarduq, director general of the tourism ministry. In 2001, Lebanon received 837,072 visitors, up 100,000 from 2000, and it is widely expected that Lebanon could well see a return to its days of glory in 1974, breaking the record of 1.4 million tourists.

“Starting in August we have had a 20% increase in incoming flights especially from Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and Dubai. Some airlines even doubled their frequency. I can say there has been a 25-35% increase in 2002 of incoming flights and passengers,” says Imad Abdel Malek, regional manager of the Industry Distribution and Financial Services division (IDFS) of the International Air Transport Association (IATA).

Tourists are not only visiting Lebanon more these days, they are choosing to extend their stays. Amin Ahmed, marketing manager at Kanoo Travel in Dubai says there has been a radical improvement year after year and attributes this largely to the Lebanese tourism authority which has among other incentives launched its own shopping festival. The traffic from the Gulf, according to Saeed Maheen, general manager of Kanoo holidays, is a combination of those looking for a short break and others interested in longer periods of time. On average the majority of visitors to Beirut stay 15 days, says Ghassan Hitti, general manager of the syndicate of travel agents.
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The picture changes considerably when you look at Lebanon’s mountain resorts and areas like Faraya. Hitti expects to see 80% growth in Arab tourism to Lebanon and says those who stay in the mountains usually average two months. “Business is good in Lebanon. It is almost double the number of tourists from last year and you can see this from restaurants, people renting their homes in the mountains and from the crowds in Alay and Hamdoun,” says Hitti.

While not cheap, expense has not deterred visitors from spending, and spending is exactly what everyone in Lebanon wants. A family of four that opts to rent an apartment over staying in a hotel, says Maheen of Kanoo Holidays, will usually spend approximately US $4,000. But then you also have the Gulf tourist who drops US $1000 without a flinch, Sarduq at the ministry of tourism says. This is a realistic figure when you consider the cost of a hotel room, renting a car, going out to restaurants on Mono street, and of course shopping in the narrow Hamra street. “But there are those who also spend $10,000 a day,” says Sarduq.

Tourism has been Lebanon’s most dynamic sector in terms of growth and profile over the last three to four years. The question that needs to be asked, though, is whether Lebanon will be able to sustain this growth. Industry insiders, analysts and economists say it has no choice but to.

“It is something that the government recognises as the key to their future development strategy and Gulf investors are certainly an important source of funding to make their goals realisable,” says Simon Williams, senior economist at the Economist Intelligence Unit.
It would be unrealistic to expect tourism alone to put a dent into Lebanon’s US $29 billion debt, which has accumulated to a horrendous ratio that is 178% of public debt to GDP, one of the highest in the world.

That said, the growth of intra Arab tourism has brought with it what one might consider a fringe benefit. The inflow of foreign exchange and Arab investor money is reducing pressure on the Lebanese pound, which has been hammered by years of imprudent fiscal policies, says one economist.

Lebanon is right now in a transitory process, with an extreme foreign trade deficit, and high unemployment rates, but that has not stopped speculation that US $800 million of Gulf investor money has made its way to the country’s banks.

Sebastian Dessus a senior economist at the World Bank’s office in Beirut says, “The additional inflow of capital has a positive impact on the Lebanese pound because you increase the demand for the Lebanese currency with the inflow of foreign currencies—the net impact however is still not clear.”

Broken or not, what can be said with a relative degree of certainty, is that Beirut the city, is thriving once again. After observing the dividends of 12 years of reconstruction, there is no denying the resilience of the Lebanese people. ||**||

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