E: What was the ministry’s strategy in 2003?
AA: This year should see a robust and energetic campaign to promote the Lebanese tourist industry, especially in light of the encouraging figures that were recorded in 2003. Not since 1974, 20 years ago, have we seen over one million visitors and the business that was generated was in the region of $1.6 billion or 10% of GDP. This growth, which realistically began in earnest in 2000, should translate into the end of 2003 seeing 1.1 million visitors, mainly from Arab countries, compared to 936,000 for 2002.
E: How do you explain the fact that 2003 was an unstable year for the region, while the local tourism industry saw a considerable improvement?
AA: Well, we still have regional instability and some foreign countries still associate us in their media with terrorism, but the reality is that tourists are amazed when they come to Lebanon and see the level of security and quality of services provided.
E: Who is coming?
AA: In 2002, 44% of visitors were Arabs. This August nearly 200,000 Arabs visited Lebanon. Currently, information is being collected at the airport to get a clearer picture of all the different types of tourists coming to Lebanon.
E: Are those that visit Lebanon big spenders?
AA: Although we have a relatively small number of tourists, their daily spend is high. Tunisia needs five million visitors to reach our income. There, the average daily spend is around $60 per day, while in Lebanon the average expenditure per tourist per day is $250. Many Gulf Arabs spend as much as $500 per day. There are untapped countries like Japan and South Korea, whose tourists spend up to $400 per day. Lebanon has no tourism office in Japan. Today, there are talks to take exhibits from the national museum to Japan in an effort to help promote the country there.
E: What type of tourism is the ministry keen to focus on? Religious, shopping, archeological or conference tourism?
AA: We will have a clearer picture once the results of our research are finalized.
E: What about the more niche activities?
AA: We are trying to develop Lebanon as an upmarket destination, stressing on quality and luxury, but we are also promoting Lebanon as a destination for what I am going to call “medical tourism,” where we can offer packages to people looking for medical treatment and the ensuing recuperation period. Hospitals would be classified according to specialization and we would imagine a lot of Arabs would opt for this, as they respect our doctors and facilities. Cultural, eco and archaeological are other sectors we need to develop.
E: What do you anticipate will be the sectoral obstacles for 2004 and how do you intend to overcome them?
AA: Well, we need to improve the state of the roads. This is crucial if we wish to woo western tourists to Lebanon. We need to be seen as a safe country. We also need to work on our service skills, especially how we receive, talk to and help tourists, and this is especially needed in the public sector. We also need to develop modern laws for the sector and this will help hotels and restaurants overcome the problems that are limiting the inflow of foreign investment. The ministry has established a mechanism to reduce red tape. IDAL used to handle this but it was not doing a good job and that is why we decided to bring tourism-related investment development back to the ministry.
E: What is your strategy for 2004, assuming you are still in office?
AA: We are in the process of analyzing the tourism sector in every region in order to know what will be needed in terms of investment and then develop that region’s tourism potential. We will be promoting the country with an international marketing campaign, but domestically we are working on the TELEPHERIQUE project that aims to link all ski resorts. This will benefit a lot of derivative activities and companies such as MEA, car rental firms and tourism fairs. We will increase the number of tourism police; work closely with the private sector and others in the tourism community to improve the environment – an important factor for the modern tourist.