Q&A: Elie Nakhal

Since 1990, Elie Nakhal has been the owner and chairman of Nakhal & Cie., one of Lebanon

E: How many non-Arab tourists are coming to Lebanon?

Lebanon has passed through several stages with respect to non-Arab tourists. We had a period of unfortunate events from 1975 to 1990. After that, we tried hard to get non-Arab tourists to come here. Our efforts were not always successful, despite the fact that we invited a lot of Western journalists and tour operators here, and offered one-day trips to Lebanon for tourists in Syria, in an effort to acquaint them with Lebanon. We had a good period, from about 1994 till 1997 or 1998, during which a trend began to emerge in which Western tourists were heading for Lebanon, mainly for cultural tours, not for leisure. But then we had the problems in the South, the Israeli attack. At that time, we had 150 to 155 Western tourist groups booked for March, April and May, which was fabulous. They all cancelled. A year later, we sensed a chance to recover, but then the INTIFADA began in Palestine and the whole region began to suffer from a lack of tourists. Now, we feel a new trend has begun again. Western tourists are interested in coming to Lebanon again, from Germany, France and Italy, but also from Russia, Hungary, and Spain – new markets for Lebanon. Lebanon’s normal Western tourism market is France, Italy and Germany.

E: You say there is a new trend, but what percentage of total tourist arrivals do Western tourists currently account for annually overall?

A very small percentage – something like 5%, not more than that. But during some periods of the year, they account for a greater portion than Gulf Arabs because most Arabs visit Lebanon only during the high season – the Muslim feast and the height of summer. The Westerners come mainly in the spring and autumn. And they come for seminars and conferences.

E: Can conference goers be classified as tourists?

A conference trip and a tourist trip are almost the same. They spend three hours in the morning at the conference and the rest of the day is for tourism, gastronomical pursuits and fun. Conference visitors represent significant tourist numbers for us in March, April and May.

E: What attractions can we offer the non-Arab tourist?

Most don’t come to visit only Lebanon. Their visit here is part of a trip to Lebanon and Syria, or Lebanon, Syria and Jordan. Most of those who come only to Lebanon are here for seminars. The Western tourists are here for cultural tourism; they visit Baalbek, Tyre, Sidon and Byblos. Until recently, they weren’t coming for leisure tourism. But in the new trend, Russian and Hungarian visitors in particular come here for leisure. We are trying to nurture this interest by offering leisure programs. We believe Lebanon has everything: beaches, sun, nightlife, and culture. We can be both a leisure and a cultural destination. That’s the image we are now trying to promote.

E: A fair number of tourism professionals say it is pointless wasting time trying to attract Western tourists because they constitute such a small percentage of the market and their numbers are unlikely to rise significantly in the near future. Is this a wise tactic?

This is not a good strategy at all. The Arabs come during the high season only. Why not aim for 100% occupancy in April, May and June by attracting Non-Arab tourists too? Why keep the rooms and beaches empty, and tourism employees out of work? Non-Arab tourists could even be enticed here in February. We have to promote Lebanon to non-Arab tourists. I hope the misguided policy of focusing only on Arab tourists will change. I am doing everything I can to get Non-Arab tourists to come here. I am being helped by the newly-created charter jet company MenaJet. In a joint venture with MenaJet, there will be, as of mid-December, a weekly flight to Beirut on Wednesday from Brussels, and another from Berlin. There will be twice-weekly flights as of 16 December from Bahrain, to bring people here for weekend holidays, from Thursdays until Sundays. These visitors will be Pakistanis, Indians and British. We will also be bringing Arabs here as of 23 December from Aleppo. We hope to have a contract for one flight a week from Moscow, hopefully from the beginning of January. And we plan to bring people here on flights from the Swedish capital, Stockholm, starting in April.

E: How much would such a roundtrip from Brussels cost?

That is in the hands of the people over there. But I think it will be around €300 (about $390).

E: How are you generating business abroad?

We have created a six-person team traveling all the time to generate business. We are promoting Lebanon as a leisure destination, not as a cultural one, because leisure tourists make up a much higher percentage of tourists overall than cultural ones. There is one cultural tourist for every 100 leisure ones.

E: Those tourism professionals who have written off European tourists would say you are being unrealistic, that you won’t be able to increase numbers in any meaningful way. A reasonable assessment?

We have to try to make our dream come true. Until recently I would have said I agree 100% with them, but as I said, we are identifying a new trend, a new interest in Lebanon. Western tourists, especially from Russia and Hungary, want to come here. We can feel it through our tour operators, through our contacts. This was not the case a few months ago. We must take advantage of this new trend. We have the power to do so with the help of MenaJet.

E: How do you explain this sudden surge in interest?

I can’t.

E: What more can be done to bring in Non-Arab tourists?

The government must advertise more. They have to distribute posters, and use radio and television advertisements in a big advertising campaign. It is pointless inviting any more journalists and tour operators. We have invited hundreds. It was helpful at a certain time, but not anymore. The government doesn’t want to see this though. They want to focus only on the Gulf Arabs who come only for short periods. Why not bring in Western tourists for the rest of the year – ten months.

E: What more should the private sector be doing?

The private sector has already done a lot, within its means. That’s it. Finished. Now the government has to take over. We have invited tour operators and journalists to come, covering all expenses. We have traveled a lot to establish contacts – and traveling is not cheap. We have participated in six or seven tourism fairs a year, each of which costs a lot of money. We can’t do more. The government can.

E: The ministry of tourism says its hands are tied by budgetary restrictions. Is this a fair excuse?

Don’t tell me the government doesn’t have money. They have the money to build roads and bridges. They have the money to spend on the electricity sector – in which they’ve invested huge sums. They could have invested $500 million, $300 million in the tourism sector. I appreciate that they’ve made it possible for tourists to get visas upon arrival, but they need to reduce airport tax too. Some tourist operators create programs using Damascus as a hub simply to avoid the high airport tax at Beirut airport. Here they pay $40. In Damascus they pay $4.

E: What are the difficulties involved in selling Lebanon to non-Arab tourists?

The security situation and the negative connotations generated by 15 years of civil war.

E: Is the country’s infrastructure a handicap?

Electricity shortages are a big problem – which should not exist. And we still have water problems, although they’re not as bad as the electricity ones.

E: You also organize trips abroad for Lebanese. What are postwar Lebanese tourists looking for? Where do they go?

As with tourists elsewhere, leisure is the main interest. Of Lebanese going abroad, 5% are looking for culture and 95% are looking for leisure. They want to combine beach, shopping and nightlife. Most are looking to go somewhere in the region – Greece, Egypt, Turkey. In Europe, they want Italy, France and Spain. But Europe is becoming very expensive because of the weak dollar. So now the most popular destinations are Turkey in the summer and Egypt in the winter.

E: What have you learned from the tourism industry outside Lebanon?

If a few years ago you had told me we would have Arab charter flights in and out of Lebanon, I would have said you were crazy. But things change. Tourism is changing rapidly. It is part of the process of globalization. I have learned that we should focus on the leisure market. And we need to start building resorts, not just hotels. Our clients are looking for holiday clubs, not just regular hotels. We need to take greater advantage of the country’s sandy beaches. But we’ll have to overcome the negative security connotations of the South. Also, investors won’t invest the kind of money you need to create a resort unless they see more foreign tourists coming here. Building a resort that is used for only two months in the summer is by any small calculation crazy. They won’t do it. We need to generate business for at least nine months a year – and we can do it, because the Russians, Hungarians and Poles travel in the winter.

E: Tourism accounts for roughly 10% of GDP. Given that relatively low figure, can we really say that Lebanon is a major tourist destination?

The government isn’t exploiting the tourism sector properly yet. When they do, they will make a lot of money out of it.

E: Lebanon has been branded by some observers as a place where Gulf Arabs come for sex and alcohol. Is that an accurate observation?

That is one reason single Gulf Arabs come here. But there are also a lot of families. And as usual, people stress only one aspect – which is single young people coming here for prostitutes. But the majority of Gulf Arabs are not here for that.

E: Is there a place for ecotourism in Lebanon?

We try to show visitors Lebanon’s beautiful environment. On tours, we use secondary roads, which in the mountains are very beautiful. We take visitors to restaurants with beautiful views, in the heart of nature. We could create a one-day trekking tour.

E: How do you envision the sector a year from now?

Expanding. I’m not expecting the government to help, though. I’m an optimist and a realist at the same time.

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