Can Beirut bounce back?

Prior to the February bomb blasts in Beirut, Lebanon was a tourism success story in the making. Now halted in its tracks, the tourism industry is working hard to promote a ‘business as usual’ message to encourage visitors to come back

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By  Robbie Greenfield Published  May 10, 2005

|~|Lebanon-L.jpg|~|On the shores of the Mediterranean, Lebanon has a lot to offer international travellers|~|In the last few years, Lebanon has been a genuine Middle East tourism success story. With impressive levels of growth in the sector and ambitious development plans, the stage was set for further growth in 2005. However, since the February bombings in Beirut, the country has found itself, and its hospitality industry, in a state of limbo. 2003 marked the first time since the outbreak of civil war in 1976 that international visitors to Lebanon surpassed the one million mark, a 7% increase on 2002 figures. Last year yielded an even greater increase with almost a million visitors between January and August alone, and by the start of 2005, a projected growth of between 20-25% was anticipated for the year. “Our hotel, as with the entire hotel industry, experienced a boom in business this year, with January and February being exceptional months,” says Carlos Malliaroudakis, director of sales and marketing for InterContinental Hotels in Lebanon. “We were above budget and did very well in the start of February, achieving about 85% occupancy. For over a year and a half we were running at very high occupancies,” he adds. Political instability in the wake of the attacks has effectively stopped tourism in its tracks. Occupancy in Beirut has plummeted to somewhere between 20-30%, with hotels experiencing a deluge of last-minute cancellations. “The number of tourists visiting in February plunged 18.5% below last February’s level, with only 49,800 compared with over 61,000 in 2004,” notes Joelle Kahwaji, PR co-ordinator, Movenpick Hotel & Resort, Beirut. Nevertheless, hoteliers in the region are optimistic that recent events represent only a temporary blip in what should be a very bright future, seeing a successful election and the establishment of a new government as the key to stability. “Whilst the non-essential travellers have stopped coming to Beirut, I am very optimistic that once the elections have passed Lebanon will bounce back,” says Rita Masaad, PR manager, Habtoor Grand Hotel, which opens in May. “We are confident in the future and health of all InterContinental Hotels Group’s brands in Lebanon and will continue to develop and invest in our current plans,” adds Malliaroudakis. The ministry of tourism seconds these aspirations. “If the political situation improves we hope that there will be no negative effects on the tourism flow in the near future,” says ministry director general, Nada Sardouk. Guarded optimism seems to personify the situation as it currently stands, and whilst the next few months, if not the entire year, may be somewhat of a write-off for Lebanese tourism, the potential is undoubtedly there for a recovery and continued sustained growth. The busy forthcoming schedule for hospitality development certainly reflects this. “Several new multi-million dollar hotels are under construction in the Beirut area,” says Kahwaji. “The city is witnessing spectacular growth in the number of hotels partnered with international chains. In the next two years, US $200 million worth of hotel projects will be completed in downtown Beirut. More than six five-star properties, including a Hilton, Four Seasons and Starwood will be built in the area over the next three years,” she adds. Hotel construction in Lebanon has been carried out at a more relaxed pace in recent years than in other areas of the Middle East. The Four Points Verdun, which opened earlier this year, is the newest arrival, whilst the Movenpick Hotel & Resort Beirut opened its books in 2002. This seemingly sedate growth is put into context by the country’s relatively modest visitor figures of around the one million mark (Dubai, alone, projects annual visitors of over 15 million by 2010), coupled with energetic plans to fuel progression in the next five years. This month will see the opening of the Habtoor Grand Hotel, the third Al Habtoor Group project in Lebanon, following the success of the Metropolitan Palace Hotel, Beirut, and the Habtoorland theme park. At a cost of over US $250 million, The Habtoor Grand Hotel will be the highest building in Beirut at 130 metres, and will be linked by a bridge to the Metropolitan Palace Hotel to create ‘Habtoor City’. “Guests of both hotels will have access to over 12 restaurants and bars and the Boulevard shopping complex,” says Masaad. The Boulevard itself is being touted as Lebanon’s first themed shopping mall, inspired by Paris chic and featuring upmarket clothing outlets, outdoor terraces and a focus on architecture. As well as local group Al Habtoor furthering its presence in Beirut, more international chains are also poised to arrive in Lebanon for the first time, most notably a scheduled 2007 opening for exclusive hotel group Four Season’s debut property. Grand Hyatt is expected to open in the same year, to be a joined by Hilton Beirut by 2009. Regional chain, Rotana is also set to add two properties to the two it already operates. The Raouche Rotana Suites will be Rotana’s third property in Lebanon. Following the successful opening of the Hazmieh Rotana Hotel last year, the company will be introducing its suites brand in a seafront location in the heart of the Lebanese capital. The property will have 170 rooms and suites. It is expected to open in late 2005 or early 2006. Rotana Hotels’ fourth property in Lebanon will be the Solidere Rotana Suites. Due to open in 2008, this property will have 160 suites and 90 serviced apartments. In a move to anticipate this heightened competition, some of Beirut’s more established hotels have undergone extensive renovation, including the InterContinental Phoenicia Beirut, Movenpick Hotel & Resort Beirut and Radisson SAS Martinez. InterContinental Phoenicia was directly affected by the bombing and closed immediately for repair. The five-star hotel reopened at the end of April. “We have undergone major renovation in all rooms, restaurants and public areas,” confirms Malliaroudakis. “In addition, 16 junior suites have been added to the inventory due to high demand, with IP telephones installed in all rooms and suites of the hotel, whilst all Club floor rooms have been equipped with 30-inch LCD screens.” Radisson SAS Martinez has undergone a more general revamp with improvements made to the rooms, lobby and restaurants, whilst Movenpick introduced its exclusive Royal suite in March. In a development that aims to cater for top-end guests, the 300 square metre suite offers a master bedroom, jacuzzi, sauna and private balcony. Modern touches are provided with minimalist décor and a plasma screen television with surround sound. Lebanon’s tourism stronghold has always been the GCC market, especially Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, and this may prove to be to its advantage in the months ahead, as regional travellers look set to continue to remain closer to home whilst vacationing. “InterContinental Phoenicia’s core market, encompassing both business and leisure travellers, comes from the GCC, with Kuwait and Saudi Arabia at number one. Corporate business makes up 40% of trade,” says Malliaroudakis. Resort hotels like the Sheraton Coral Beach Hotel & Resort, whilst catering for a completely different type of traveller, still obtain more business from regional visitors. “Our main markets are Saudi Arabia, UAE, Egypt and Syria consecutively. We also have a large portion of tourists from the US and UK, followed by France, Germany and Switzerland,” comments Lina Mustapha, assistant PR manager, Sheraton Coral Beach. Both the recently opened Four Points Verdun and Radisson SAS Martinez confirm that regional travel is the key market for them, especially in terms of leisure tourists in the summer months. However, new markets are beginning to emerge. Rida International Travel (RIT), a local travel agent, is eager to point out these new trends. “We have seen a growth in our markets recently, particularly East Europe and North Africa. Prague, Ukraine, Russia, Tunisia, Algeria and Morocco all represent new markets for us,” says Rafic Rida, general manager, RIT. Europe is also a strengthening market for Lebanon. “We are getting increased bookings from Europe, especially the German markets, France, Spain, Denmark, Sweden, Italy and Greece. In general, Europe is getting much stronger for us. We get traffic from Japan, Malaysia, Hong Kong and some from Singapore, as well as some from Latin America, but primarily our tourist base is from the Arab countries,” adds Rida. Last year was what Rida describes as a ‘golden year’ for RIT, but even so business for the agency in January of this year was up by 47% on 2004 figures. Between February 14th and the beginning of April, RIT reported a limited number of cancellations for groups and individual travellers, especially those on business, but very few future bookings. “Everybody is waiting for the situation to stabilise,” says Rida. “We have had many requests for 2006 whilst others are waiting until after the election to benefit from our summer packages.” Whatever packages are on offer, the key issue for promoting the country in the short term will always be safety. “We offer a variety of low cost packages, but primarily people are looking for a safe destination. We are responsible for the safety of our clients and we keep them updated on security issues on a daily basis but no-one can guarantee this security. We believe in Lebanon, but we place our clients first and we are very honest with them, informing them immediately if we feel they need to reroute their itinerary due to safety issues,” Rida explains. RIT is concentrating on promotional packages that cater for specific activities such as eco-tourism and cultural trips, to attract visitors. The emphasis seems to be on promoting Lebanon as not just a winter or summer getaway, but its ability to provide numerous types of holiday all in one. As well as the growing presence of eco-tourism operators, travel agents and hotels alike seek to offer packages that include archaeological, adventure, skiing and family activities. With its growing business trade, especially in regards to MICE (meetings, incentive, conferences and exhibitions) business, the degree of diversity offered by both leisure and corporate hospitality in Lebanon is both a reaction to and a reflection of its evolving destination stature. Both hotels and travel agents are very active in promoting Lebanese tourism. “Each year, the InterContinental Phoenicia participates in major road shows and exhibitions, both on a regional and international scale. In May we will once again be present at the Arabian Travel Market (ATM),” says Malliaroudakis. The Movenpick Hotel & Resort Beirut is also involved in campaigns both regionally and on the road. “We produce tailor-made packages for the local travel agencies to promote in their respective markets and have a presence in all the major international trade shows, like ATM, World Travel Market in London, International Luxury Travel Market in Cannes and the International Tourismus Borse in Berlin,” adds Kahwaji. The ministry of tourism will promote Lebanon at tourism conferences and shows in Europe and Dubai this year. “All the hotels in Lebanon were very active in promoting until the end of April, some of them until mid-May, but everyone is waiting for the election. There is a belief that after the election there will be full stability and the situation can return to normal with a good summer season for regional tourists,” claims Rida. The general consensus is that Lebanon’s tourist industry will bounce back, but the question remains: when? The national election, to be held no later than the 31st of May, seems to be the key date as far as vouching for stability goes, but it may take a while before tourist numbers reflect a return to normal. Whatever the outcome, the hospitality industry in Lebanon refuses to live under a cloud of pessimism. “This is not the first time that Lebanon has witnessed such a tragedy and it has always managed to recover. The effect is only short term and when summer begins, occupancy in Beirut will pick up again,” says Mustapha. With its improving infrastructure, increasing hotel development and growing markets, the country has enough momentum to see out the current crisis. “I believe in the future of Lebanon,” insists Rida. “Soon it will be booming again, and there will not even be enough hotels to accommodate the traffic that I anticipate,” he adds. Time will tell, but the prognosis is optimistic for a bourgeoning tourist success story stopped short in its tracks. ||**||

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