Ever-optimistic tourist industry insiders contend that 2003 has been a satisfactory year overall and that Lebanon will continue to replace Europe and America as the destination of choice for high-end Gulf Arab tourists in 2004. In reality, however, some major prodding is necessary in the coming year for an underdeveloped sector that needs to overcome serious obstacles imposed by the government, extend a paltry two-month summer peak season and bolster the number of arrivals to the country by attracting a fresh brood of tourists from non-Arab countries.
Working with a government that critics say is doing little, if anything, to help buttress the sector will continue to be a main hurdle for the tourism industry throughout 2004. The ministry currently operates with a hopelessly low budget, an aversion to new blood, no marketing plan to counter media that portray Lebanon as a violence-prone country, fractious domestic politics that unnerve prospective visitors – even in the Gulf – and simmering regional instability.
“The government must understand that tourism is not only selling hotel rooms and restaurant meals,” said Paul Ariss, president of the union of restaurant, café, nightclub and pastry shop owners.
Also hindering the development of the tourism sector is a flawed infrastructure, which the government has yet to seriously tackle. Not only do the poor roads restrict tourists from visiting major tourist destinations in various regions of the country, water and electricity shortages occur at the height of the summer season. Power cuts in Bhamdoun and Aley in August 2003 prompted 20% to 30% of the Arab tourists staying in the region’s mountain resorts to pack up and head for Syria, or home.
Government policies adopted in 2003 will also harm tourism in the coming year. The recent decision to stop granting British citizens visas upon their arrival at Beirut airport, for example, will undoubtedly cause a decrease in British visitor numbers and reflect negatively on Lebanon as a tourist destination. Although understandable as a diplomatic tit-for-tat measure – Britain now requires transit visas for Lebanese with layovers in the UK – the move, critics say, is a case of cutting off your nose to spite your face.
“Unfortunately, politics in Lebanon very rarely takes into consideration the benefits of tourism,” declared Ariss.
Another threat to the tourism sector is the levy of burdensome government imposed taxes that is driving 50% to 60% of the some 3,000 or so restaurants to consider shutting down and moving to Dubai, Abu Dhabi and other Gulf cities, despite the fact that each have already spent an average of $500,000 in start up costs to open in Lebanon. “There is no logic to the way the authorities deal with the general economy, and with tourism. The tourism sector should not be overburdened with taxes and charges,” Ariss complained. A realistic view of Lebanon’s tourist sector shows that the country no longer enjoys the unassailable position it held before the civil war. It must now work to compete with rival destinations, such as Egypt, Jordan, Syria and Dubai. According to Pierre Achkar, president of the Lebanese Hotels Association, Lebanon will have to fight to compete with the tourism industries of these countries. “We are not competitive because our prices are high, due mostly to the taxes and charges,” he said. For the moment, however, critics say the government is seemingly under the mistaken assumption that because Lebanon is blessed with natural tourist assets, it will somehow blossom unaided as a tourism destination. “We need a real political decision at a high level to make this country a real tourist destination,” said Achkar. “The government has to understand that you have to do a lot of things – even if you have a nice country, nice people, a nice nightlife – to be on the international map of tourism.” But detractors allege the ministry of tourism is either unwilling or unable to do its job. “We really have a problem in the ministry. They need human resources and they need a budget,” stated Ariss. “The current budget is at a minimum and it’s forbidden to have new employees in the ministry, even though they don’t have professional people.”
Criticism has also been leveled at the ministry over its handling of this year’s Arab World Trade and Tourism Exchange (AWTTE), held in September 2003 at BIEL. The ministry awarded the management contract for the fair to a certain Lebanese travel agency, invoking the anger of its competitors, which then boycotted the gathering. This contributed strongly to weak participation at the event and its failure to impress.
“The tourism ministry sometimes helps very big industry investors and ignoring the small investors,” protested Achkar. He added that the hundreds of smaller players, who actually put Lebanon on the international tourism map and constitute a social fabric upon which countless families depend for a living, are being swept aside to make way for powerful companies. According to Achkar, one reason why no tourism-bolstering governmental decisions have been taken is because the government has been resting on its laurels since the 9/11 attacks and the impression that Gulf Arabs wary of travel to the US and Europe will continue to turn to Lebanon. But accurate tourism-related data would help smash the false sense of security. Information is needed on where visitors are staying. For example, when Lebanon registers a million tourists, the implication is they all stay in hotels. But in fact, observers estimate that as many as 50% of Gulf Arabs own property and houses and do not pay for hotels, and spend much less on restaurants and other outings. To ensure a successful 2004 season, industry experts agree that Lebanon’s constricted two-month summer tourism season should be extended. In other countries, Achkar noted, the summer season runs from the beginning of May until the end of October. “Turkey, Cyprus, Egypt, are all fully booked from the first of May until the end of October. For us, the summer season is July and August and we are losing a lot of money [as a result].”
Furthermore, in a joint campaign with the tourism ministry, the Hotels Association is to start aggressively targeting potential tourists from Eastern Europe, in particular Russia and Ukraine (for Eastern Europeans, the cancellation rates in Egypt during the Iraq war were far lower than for Western Europeans and it appears the are less susceptible to the regionally-generated jitters). However, marketing studies will prove imperative to determine which prospective tourist types and what countries should be targeted, and how they should be lured in. “The figures that are published by the government should be analyzed more accurately in order to decide where to invest and who are the targets,” said Ariss, adding that Lebanon should start to steer away from relying heavily on the Gulf Arabs that constitute the lion’s share of the country’s tourists. “We cannot say that we have tourism in Lebanon just because we have some Arab tourists who come here during very defined periods.”