Getting tourism off the ground

Joumana Azzi

Branch manager at Wild Discovery Travel & Tourism

E How many Lebanese are taking holidays abroad on an annual basis and how has this figure evolved over the last few years? What characterizes the outbound Lebanese tourist market? Is the trend of package tours catching on?

While we do not have exact figures on the number of Lebanese taking holidays abroad on an annual basis, the market for outbound holidays as a whole has been increasing substantially over the last few years, with many people going away three to four times a year.

The statistics on airport passenger traffic clearly indicate that there has been a substantial increase in departures over the years up until the first month of 2005. The year 2005 witnessed a decrease not only in the incoming flow of passengers, but also in the outbound tourism market due to the events Lebanon went through. However, despite the unstable situation, Wild Discovery increased its business volume in 2005, compared to 2004.

The outbound tourism market in Lebanon is mainly characterized by the diversity of the destinations that are chosen by the clients. The main destinations that are most frequently requested by the Lebanese are Egypt, Turkey, France, Italy, Greece and Cyprus. But Wild Discovery is seeing an increasing number of individuals going to the Far East, South America, Spain, Vienna, Prague, as well as very exotic destinations such as the Maldives, Mauritius and others, especially newlyweds going on their honeymoon.

The trend of package holiday solutions has caught on. It is attracting mainly clients wishing to buy a fully organized product, taking advantage of the knowledge and the expertise of the operators and most of all, the price advantage when you book a package compared to when you book individual and separate services. Obviously the size of the tour operator, his knowledge and his professionalism are key to a successful holiday experience.
 

Philippe Skaff

CEO (MENA) of Grey Worldwide

E To what extent was Lebanon’s image affected by the events of 2005? How did the media contribute to this? What approach should both the public and private sector take in 2006, to improve the perception of Lebanon abroad?

Although Lebanon’s image has been hurt this year, I think the effect was disproportionate to what actually happened. Like anywhere, the media always jump on bad news, and whilst they don’t necessarily exaggerate events, they take them very much out of context so that one bomb seems to imply total chaos. The loss of [ex-premier Rafik] Hariri, who was a very charismatic and appealing figure for the West, has also harmed Lebanon’s image there and almost left us orphaned.

To improve people’s perception of Lebanon, I think we have to prioritize both tourism and protection of the environment – the two go hand in hand. I would leave aside superficial things like shopping and instead concentrate on our cultural and historic riches. Lebanon has a unique and diverse atmosphere, which you can feel as soon as you step off the plane; it’s somewhere you come back to again and again, unlike some places where you can virtually tick off like a checklist. It’s like the difference between a poem and a story – you can read a story from beginning to end, but a poem has a certain ‘feel’ to it which can be rediscovered a thousand times. Every foreigner I meet who comes here on business says that Lebanon is the best-kept secret of the Middle East, which suggests that its image abroad is worse than the reality. But it’s impossible to run a promotional campaign on CNN, or wherever, at the same time as there are bombs on the news.

Ramzi Assily

Resident manager, Movenpick Hotel and Resort, Beirut

E What contribution can tourist resorts make to the Lebanese economy? What are your expectations for 2006, and over the long term? What can be done to better define and improve nationwide quality standards for resorts and hotels?

Tourist resorts already make an important contribution to the economy, especially with the local community and Lebanese expatriates who return from abroad during the summer. Resorts are definitely an upcoming trend now. We’ve seen more opening both to the north and south of Beirut, and they’ve proved that a six-month season between May and October can be very lucrative. And once one operation makes money, others will follow – like any trend in Lebanon. I don’t know exactly what’s in the pipeline, but one or two more new resorts will probably open next year, and the existing ones will expand. Our own operation is slightly different, as we are only open to hotel guests and owners of our cabanas, but next year we should maintain the same trend evident since we started. Obviously this last summer was not as good as 2004, but if the political situation stabilizes then we’re optimistic for a strong year.

In terms of standards, quality clearly starts right from day one and the size of the initial investment. But my personal opinion is that we need a better system of classifying hotels, ideally with foreign consultants brought in to help judge star ratings. And although Lebanese staff are sought after in the whole region, our training colleges need to find a better mix of management and technical skills. At the moment, there are only the two extremes.

Pierre Achkar

President of the Lebanese Hotel Association

E How many hotel rooms will Lebanon offer by the end of 2006? Is this capacity appropriate for Lebanon’s needs? What are the requirements for healthy and sustained growth in the hotel industry in 2006? What can the public sector do to better supervise and assist hotels?

We have around 16,700 hotel rooms at the moment. Another 3,000 rooms are under construction and although I don’t know exactly how many will open in 2006, we usually expect 500 to 600 new rooms annually. Next year should be no different. Often it is old hotels being renovated, which are sometimes not included on the figures for new rooms. There is no shortage of rooms, although occupancy rates have been down this year thanks to the political situation. Since 2001, we’ve seen growth of 30% per year, and expected 2005 to be the best ever. But for the first three months, Beirut was virtually closed and all our plans were cancelled. Things picked up during the summer and in fact, given all the uncertainty, it has actually not been a bad year. For healthy growth in 2006, though, the absolute first priority is political stability. As soon as we have that, we need a major promotion to improve Lebanon’s image abroad. In terms of public sector help, although legislation does need to be updated, it is not a prerequisite for growth in the hotel industry. More important is to unify the public and private sector in promoting the country, as professionals in the private sector know better than the government what should be done, and how to do it. I also believe that the national tourism council should be reactivated and funded jointly by both private and public sectors – this kind of co-operation is important for the health of the industry.

Khalil Malaeb

CEO of K&M Health Tourism International

E Why do visitors come to Lebanon for medical treatment? How healthy are the future prospects for developing this niche? Can we expect any major developments in 2006?

Our medical tradition is very important – we have 140 years of experience and this helps create trust with patients. Our doctors are often foreign born or educated, and a very high percentage of them practice a specialty or a sub-specialty. Plus, the cost of care here is about 40% to 50% cheaper than in Europe, with exactly the same quality, and Lebanon is the only country in the Middle East to have 80 hospitals accredited internationally. Compared to Arab countries, the cost of care here is similar but the standards are higher, whilst the market for Arabs taking medical treatment abroad is lucrative – it’s now worth $4.5 billion. As for the future outlook, developing medical tourism is not a one-year process. We’ve clearly been set back by the death of Hariri, who took a personal interest in promoting this niche. One major goal is to access the European market, especially those countries like the UK with long waiting lists. We also want to further promote Lebanon as a plastic surgery destination. For these kind of operations, many people now travel to South Africa because costs are perhaps 50% less there than in Europe. But we can offer even better value – and of course with the same level of excellence. In addition, we’re currently in negotiations with a re-insurance company to actually offer insurance during medical operations – something, which is usually wavered. It will apply to certain hospitals and should come into force in early 2006. Given that Lebanon will be the only Arab country to offer this kind of insurance, it’s another sign of confidence in our medical care.

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