Q&A : Pierre Achkar

E: How would you describe Lebanon’s summer in terms of tourists?

PA: If summer means July and August, then summer was excellent for Beirut. Like last year, it was also good for the regions of Jounieh, Broummana and Bhamdoun. Our aim, however, is to extend the summer season from April to October, as in the rest of the Middle East.

E: From where did most tourists originate?

PA: Most of them came from Syria, Jordan, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf. But don’t underestimate the number of Lebanese expatriates. About 35% of summer visitors are Lebanese coming back from Africa, the Arab world or South America. Many of them stay in hotels.

E: Does one good summer mean Lebanon has regained its pre-war status as a top tourist destination?

PA: Since September 11, we’re again the biggest and best summer resort destination for the Arab region. But we have a problem attracting European tourists, even though any kind of tourism can flourish here. Just look at the country. There’s the sea, mountains, clubs, pubs and freedom for women to dress and behave as they like. Lebanon has the best of two worlds, East and West, and so it should be able to attract people from both sides.

E: Why aren’t the Europeans coming?

PA: Lebanon has an image problem. The international media only report about Lebanon in terms of terrorism, Israel and the civil war, even though these ended years ago. We have to change the image, but that cannot be done overnight. We’re talking big politics here. If a certain world leader says a certain group in the country is terrorist, this affects Lebanon’s image, and tourism. We need to change the image to attract a big tour operator who buys 10,000 room nights, like in any other top world destination. Here we generally talk about 10 to 50 room nights, which is too little for prices to really come down.

E: What do you think to do about it?

PA: So far, the Lebanese who profit from tourism have all been working on their own in promoting Lebanon. We’ve suggested that the ministries of tourism and economy, IDAL, Solidere, MEA, Casino du Liban and others cooperate under one umbrella. That would save costs and enable us to make a bigger, better impression at the big international tourism fairs. Secondly we’ve found a niche in the market. From now on, we will focus more on countries like Poland, Ukraine and Russia, as Eastern Europeans are much less impressed by the “propaganda” of the international media. During the second Gulf War hardly anyone cancelled their flights to the Middle East, while some 80 percent of the Europeans and Americans did.

E: How would you characterize the Lebanese market?

PA: Highly competitive, especially outside the summer months. There are just too many hotels for existing demand, especially in the four- and five-star range and there are still another 1,500 rooms under construction. Average occupancy rate in Beirut is some 59 percent; it should be at least 65 percent before further investments are needed. But what happens? As soon as there’s a big conference and most Beirut hotels are full, everyone calls for more hotels, while only 20 minutes away in Jounieh and Broummana most hotels remain largely empty.

E: What are the hopes and fears for the future?

PA: One of the problems of Arab tourists coming back again and again, is that at a certain point they will rent a furnished apartment or buy one. The market for furnished apartments is already booming, which is a big threat to the hotel business. The hope for the future, as I said before, is an improved image abroad, which would enable us to attract more European guests.

E: What should the role of the government be?

PA: We live in a free economy, so we don’t want a government ban on building more hotels. The problem is that the government is badly organized. We all know that. But the least we expect is decent, reliable data on which we can make our management decisions. Apart from that, we would like to see more cooperation. One thing the government can start doing is providing everyone promoting Lebanon with one and the same logo.

Peter Speetjens

Peter Speetjens is a Dutch journalist & analyst based in Beirut since 1996.