Executive sat with the Minister of Tourism Michel Pharaon to discuss ‘Live Love Lebanon’, the latest campaign to attract foreigners and Lebanese expats to the country, as well as the ministry’s views on the tourism season this past summer and its plans for 2015.
What was the aim of the ‘Live Love Lebanon’ campaign? And how would you assess its success, now that the summer tourism season has ended?
The campaign had [several] objectives, the first of which was to revive and revitalize tourism in Lebanon after three years of deterioration on the political, economic, touristic and security levels, which saw a drop of more than 40 percent in tourism and created a real mood of depression in the country.
When I came to the ministry, I knew that there was an agreement for security. When I arrived, I saw a real depression in the tourism sector and it was important to revitalize it through optimism regarding security … I was very optimistic concerning internal security. This proved to be true, because almost immediately after the formation of the government [in February 2014], the problems in Tripoli and the Bekaa were resolved.
[pullquote]We came up with the ‘Live Love Lebanon’ campaign to add dynamism to the sector[/pullquote]
We came up with the ‘Live Love Lebanon’ campaign to add dynamism to the sector. We focused on social media and developed a website to reach younger generations, who were looking to have their energies [towards promoting Lebanon] boosted by an official body. We also created travel packages for less than $1,000 per week to promote rural tourism.
This was all under one objective for us because when you aim to have a package at less than $1,000, you have to look at regions outside of Beirut. Also, to get Middle East Airlines on board with us, we had to have packages for no less than one week. We aimed to reach the young community and to convince them to come to Beirut for the summer … and also to show them that something new is happening in Lebanon.
I think the campaign was a success and it was very well received when we promoted it in Dubai at the beginning of May. Of course, it helped that there was [an end] to what we call the Arab boycott [Gulf states banning their nationals from traveling to Lebanon], which happened under the last government.
Was the touristic summer season in Lebanon successful as a whole?
In proportion to the shock of the terrorist acts in June and the problems we had in Arsal at the beginning of August, we can say it was relatively successful because Lebanese expats came and activity at Beirut airport was very high in August, with over 30,000 people coming and going on a daily basis.
‘Live Love Lebanon’ [was marketed] in Arabic [under the name] Lebanon of Life, and this message was a very powerful tool during the summer, saying that, yes, there are political problems and forces of terror in the region, but at the same time there is another battle to keep life, culture, art and activity going, and not to abandon oneself to pessimism. We had over 60 festivals arranged across Lebanon this summer.
How would you compare the mood of people in the industry and the ministry today versus six months ago? Are they happier?
No, not really. Of course, there are important fears, and we cannot deny that. In Lebanon, we always have political disturbances which are acceptable when they stay under the roof of the constitution and the law, which has been the case until now. At the same time, a long term political crisis with a presidential vacuum creates fears of negative consequences for security.
But these are normal fears which are the same in all sectors of the economy. Yet, there was still some activity in tourism because we have had a kind of external and internal cover on security and stability this year compared to 2013, when we saw even bigger internal security problems, making it extremely difficult to attract tourists.
‘Live Love Lebanon’, and tourism in general these days, seem to be driven by locals who travel to these rural places that are being promoted. Is this part of the campaign’s strategy?
This is the second objective of the ‘Live Love Lebanon’ campaign. It’s not really just domestic tourism, it’s rural tourism. Rural tourism can be domestic tourism, or it can be externally driven as well.
This is a five year strategy that we have put in place to develop all the rural areas for tourism as we think there is huge potential there.
While developing the ‘Live Love Lebanon’ campaign, there were several NGOs and partners working on developing rural tourism and we directly got involved in that.
For rural tourism, we created a new department within the ministry and asked for a committee involving all the ministries. We need to take this very seriously as it has a lot of implications for the environment, for people in their hometowns, for the beauty of Lebanon and for the economic development of those areas.
Is rural tourism being promoted more for Lebanese tourists or for those coming from abroad?
We believe it should be for both. But there has to be some infrastructure for this: the maison d’hôtes, or guest houses, and the tourism aspects of each destination have to be organized. If you look at any region in Lebanon, each has potential and we are looking to promote the regions, each with its own unique identity, one year down the line.
This is a very ambitious plan, linked to the first goal of the campaign which is offering travel packages for less than $1,000 to different areas of Lebanon, outside of Beirut. With time, when this is more organized, it can attract British, German and Russian [tourists], as well as expats in the Gulf, as there is a huge market for rural tourism.
[pullquote]I am not monitoring exactly what is working and we don’t have numbers because it’s difficult[/pullquote]
Looking ahead to 2015, and as you mentioned the success of the packages, are there any packages that were particularly successful in terms of total numbers compared to others that you would want to highlight again?
Usually what we do, because don’t forget that the ministry doesn’t have endless means, is to work with advertising agencies and on organization and then let the private sector do its job. I am not monitoring exactly what is working and we don’t have numbers because it’s difficult; I’m organizing with all the syndicates a better system of monitoring as I don’t have all the tools.
Of course, you have the traditional beach and summer packages, which still work the best, as well as business travel.
What are the ministry’s main goals for 2015?
First, we are working on administrative reform with the International Finance Corporation (IFC) to simplify the administrative procedures and we will be zooming in on that in 2015. The second is rural tourism. The third is working better with the syndicates, especially the restaurant syndicate. Fourth is medical and religious tourism and the fifth is to try to have better relations with Egypt, as it is only one hour away from Beirut [by plane], and a lot of tourists now come to the region and go from Dubai to Egypt to Jordan, so we are trying to find a way for them to come to Beirut as well.
Under the current restraints, do you have the budget allocation for developing rural tourism in 2015?
Yes. For rural tourism, we have a hundred tasks to do. We are now finding the 20 most important ones to put on a fast track and to budget for. We will then propose this to different organizations like the European [ones], or USAID, which has done a good job on rural tourism in the past, and also the ministry. So we don’t see that we will budget for this alone. We are also focusing with the Ministry of Culture on upgrading historical regional sites.
We won’t need more than a few million dollars to organize it but a lot of the money will be spent on studies.
It sounds like an interesting strategy but one of the worries we have in Lebanon is that if the minister changes, the strategy will change with him.
This is why I am trying to put different committees in place so that when the minister changes, there will still be a follow through of initiatives.
When you mentioned administrative reform, does this apply to processes in the ministry?
Yes, to simplify the issues. The Ministry of Administrative Reforms has done a good job and now it is [up to] the political will of the minister to go ahead or not, so fortunately I am with reform. At the same time — and this is Herculean — we are trying to put the municipality in this mood, but that touches some small powers and fiefdoms.
Now that the parliamentary extension and the uncertainty of presidential elections have given you more time at the helm of the tourism ministry, how are you feeling about the possibility of doing this for another two years?
The prolonging of the Parliament with all the doubts on our democratic system is less harmful than the vacuum of the presidency because this vacuum puts at stake many things and creates a paralysis in all institutions, from the government to the Parliament and so on.
So when you say that I would continue for two years, you mean there would be a [presidential] vacancy until then and that is a scenario which is very dangerous.
I would be happy to come back as the minister of tourism if I am doing good work and reforms, but to stay like this with no president would be very unfortunate.
Are you a happier man than you were about a year ago when you stepped into this role?
These few months have passed very quickly for me. I have tried to give all I can this summer, amid difficult times, and it has been a lot of work. But at the same time, I have a lot of enthusiasm, so yes I am still enthusiastic about what I am doing.