Making a comeback

Good times are on the way for Lebanon it seems, as the industry pulls together to present a positive and upbeat image for the ‘Paris of the Middle East’, with new hotels and attractions all coming on line

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By  Sarah Campbell Published  April 3, 2006

|~|MovenpickBeirut-picL.jpg|~|Both leisure and MICE markets are showing growth in Lebanon.|~|Lebanon’s tourism industry has made more comebacks than an aging rock star. It returned to success following civil war, saw tourism figures break the one million mark in 2003, recorded a bumper year in 2004 with 30% growth in arrivals, and then flat lined in 2005 following the assassination of former president Hariri in February of that year. However, the year 2006 looks set to see the Levant country back on tour again, as the ministry of tourism loads up the bandwagon and gets set to make its mark on the world stage. With a list of support acts that include Four Seasons, Hilton, InterContinental and Starwood, the country looks set to keep the tourism industry entertained for the foreseeable future. “The ministry of tourism is trying hard to promote and keep Lebanon on the international tourism map. There is no doubt that the tourism sector in Lebanon was severely shaken due to last year’s events. But the tourism sector is gradually resuming its usual activities and we are now positive that the tourism sector in Lebanon will recuperate very quickly. We are expecting a major pick-up and we are very optimistic, especially with our Arab friends coming to Lebanon this summer,” says Joseph Sarkis, minister of tourism for Lebanon. Hoteliers have also felt this upturn across the country. As Raffi Torikian, director of sales and marketing, InterContinental Le Vendome, puts it: “To sum it up, 2004 was prosperous, 2005 very challenging and 2006 seems promising so far.” Nowhere is Lebanon’s resilience more apparent than in the reconstructed city centre of Beirut: Solidere. “In 1990, downtown was a shambles, a deserted no man’s land, a ghost town. Just over a decade later, Solidere has emerged as Beirut’s most fashionable and desirable neighbourhood, with gloriously restored French mandate-era buildings, luxurious boutiques and stylish pubs,” Sarkis says. It is little surprise then that most of the new hotel development in Lebanon is centred on this new, revitalised district. Four Seasons already has a 230-room hotel under construction in the area, which is scheduled to open in early 2007. A 300-room Grand Hyatt and the Solidere Rotana Suites, both opening in the same year, will join Four Seasons. The Solidere Rotana Suites will be Rotana’s fourth property in Lebanon. Due to open in 2008, this property will have 160 rooms/suites and 90 serviced apartments, food and beverage venues, meeting space and leisure facilities. Further hotel growth in this fashionable new hub includes a 100-room boutique hotel set to open in 2008, a 300-key Landmark hotel and strong rumours of a Ritz-Carlton. Add to that the existing pool of rooms, including the five-star InterContinental Phoenicia Beirut, and Solidere is a headlining act. InterContinental Phoenicia was perhaps the hotel most affected by last year’s events, as the property suffered substantial damage and had to close for two months to undergo repairs. Since then, further improvements have been made to the guest room product, with the installation of IP phones and plasma screen television sets in rooms. The hotel has also shifted its focus onto food and beverage (F&B), and played host to celebrity chef Alain Passard earlier in the year. “InterContinental Phoenicia’s main markets are upscale business travellers, either individual and conferences clients, or high-end leisure clients. Our clients have international origins, mostly from the GCC countries in high seasons, particularly from Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, and from around the world during off-peak seasons,” says Michelle Mallat Rishani, director of public relations & communication, InterContinental Phoenicia Beirut. According to Rishani, the InterContinental Hotels Group global sales office and central reservations office have played an important role in attracting international clients. While the recent launch of the InterContinental website in Arabic has helped in attracting regional travellers. Sister property, InterContinental Le Vendôme, has also looked to the internet to boost sales, and has created its own web site, “In today’s world, an emerging interest for e-business is obvious. To respond rapidly to such demand, a web site for InterContinental Le Vendôme has been developed. It is an interactive web site providing accurate and updated information along with the possibility of booking online, retrieving packages and news, contacting the hotel, or even downloading photos,” says Raffi Torikian, director of sales and marketing, InterContinental Le Vendome. The InterContinental Le Vendôme has long been considered one of the top boutique hotels in Beirut, and with new competition set to be snapping at its heels, the hotel has recently completed a renovation of its suites. Suite renovation has also been the focus of the Mövenpick Hotel & Resort Beirut. The five-star property, located in the coastal area of Raoche, opened in 2002 and has since established itself as a competent business and leisure hotel. “Most recently, the hotel has converted eighteen deluxe sea view rooms into nine interconnecting rooms with private balcony and direct view of the Mediterranean Sea, ideal for both business travellers and families,” explains Josef Kufer, general manager of the five-star resort. According to Kufer, the MICE industry is the largest growing sector in the hotel, followed by a core number of spa aficionados. “Beirut is undoubtedly an emerging MICE destination with the Mövenpick Hotel & Resort Beirut taking the lead due to the 10 multi-purpose conference and meeting room, prime location and vast recreational amenities [we offer],” Kufer says. “Our main markets are corporate, MICE and high-end leisure travellers from the Gulf region and Europe. Due to our affiliation with Great Hotels of the World within the ‘Incentive & Business, Spa and Romantic Luxury Collection’, we are fortunate to enjoy a loyal core of healthy high- end leisure travellers who are spa worshipper’s and whom come to the Mövenpick Hotel & Resort Beirut due to our E’SPA fronted Essential Spa & Health Club”. While Kufer is happy to wax lyrical about the many facilities his hotel offers, he also realises the importance of below the line communications. The hotel regularly conducts fam trip with preferred partners within the travel trade, including tour operators, ground handlers, destination management companies and airlines, in order to give them a “first-hand experience of the property”. “The Mövenpick Hotel & Resort Beirut is also present in key airlines and tour operators programs,” Kufer adds. The MICE sector is also showing growth in the four-star market. The Four Points by Sheraton Le Verdun opened early last year and already Jad Shamseddin, sales and marketing manager in charge, is working on the plans to add more meeting and business facilities. Shamseddin is confident that 2006 will prove a sell out for hotels in the country. “2006 looks very promising. We have had a good January; an excellent February and March went ok too. We are confident that if everything is back to normal, the summer and the remainder of 2006 will be absolutely great,” he predicts. Patrick Mouchbahani, director of sales and marketing, Holiday Inn Dunes, also in Verdun, echoes Shamseddin’s confidence. “The first two months of 2006 look good and very promising. The business generated by the hotel during this period is higher than last year. We believe that we are getting more business travellers, who seem to be attracted by the promise of an economic boom in the country once our political situation stabilises,” Mouchbahani states. Holiday Inn Dunes recently underwent refurbishment, with all guest rooms being over hauled. The hotel’s VIP Club has also reopened as a piano bar. Joseph Moudabber, general manager of four-star Century Park Hotel, is also positive for 2006. “January and February figures showed an increase compared with the same period last year, and our forecast announces a promising year,” he says. The Century Park Hotel represented Lebanon in the Bocuse d’Or chefs’ competition in Lyon, France in 2005. Executive chef Maroun Chedid and his assistant, Jad Simonides, won recognition at the event. “This was Lebanon’s first participation ever in the Bocuse d’Or, and the Century Park team certainly marked its presence. Equally remarkable was Lebanon’s other high achiever: Pastry Chef Nagi Wehbe of Century Park, who participated in the Coupe du Monde de la Pâtisserie, along with other Lebanese pastry chefs, to rank fifth worldwide,” Moudabber remarks. Away from Beirut, and the ministry of tourism reports that a new hotel is under construction on a floating island in Jounieh Bay, which is set to be completed in 2007. In addition, some family hotels are being renovated and other old patrimonial houses transformed into private and small hotels in Saïda, while more boutique hotels are planned for Achrafieh. A multi-billion dollar ski resort in Mount Sannine, northeast of Beirut, is under development, according to HVS International. The 75km² resort will be the largest natural ski resort in the Middle East and will include three villages (an international sports village, an eco-farm village and a lack view village), a ski resort, various hotels, two 18-hole golf courses and other entertainment facilities. With so much development, increased occupancies, and a general vibe about the country that good times are to come, it is not surprising that minister of tourism, Joseph Sarkis, expects great things for the future, both from international and regional markets. “The new travel trends emerging [see an increase in the] Japanese market, the Chinese, Malaysian and Korean markets, Cypriot travellers, as well as the regular Arab Gulf market, which is becoming stronger every year and which we always count on,” Sarkis says. “The Middle East countries have always considered Lebanon as a privileged destination for their holidays. They represent the biggest number of tourists. Then comes the European market, which represents the country’s second largest feeder market,” he adds. For Mövenpick’s Kufer, the most prominent trend to watch is “a return of the international travellers to Lebanon”. “High-end operators have re-introduced Lebanon into their programmes as a new niche destination and it is a ‘hot’ destination for leisure travellers,” he claims. So the verdict is Lebanon is ‘hot’, and its comeback looks complete as the country heads for another record-breaking year.||**||

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