As minister of tourism, Fadi Abboud has seen Lebanon through the heyday of visitor arrivals in 2010 to the more barren roads of 2011, as well as the change in government from last year to this. At the helm of one of the most underfunded ministries in the government while overseeing an industry accounting for nearly a quarter of the country’s gross domestic product, Abboud pulled no punches when laying out the challenges for tourism in Lebanon as he sat down for an exclusive one-on-one with Executive.
E Following a fantastic 2010, how bad was 2011 for tourism?
We broke all records in 2010. Some 2.2 million tourists visited Lebanon, with total tourist spending up to an estimated $8 billion. In 2011, I think we will be down by some 300,000 tourists, most of whom come by road. Because of what happened in Syria, we lost roughly some 100,000 Jordanians, 100,000 Iranians and 100,000 Gulf Arabs. However, total spending in 2011 seems up, though I should add that buying residential property is included in tourism spending. What may also play a role is the fact that we are a dollar-based economy, and the euro went down.
E What has been done or what could have been done to counter the negative consequences of the Syrian crisis?
In all honesty, we should have taken some measures much earlier, but we did not do anything to compensate what we lost by road. For example, we could have had planes to Jordan for $50 a flight. Most Iranians only come for 24 to 48 hours, as part of a trip to Syria, and they do not spend much. But I think we could work harder in attracting the some 1.5 million Iranians who visit Turkey. In other words, we should attract more Iranians flying to Lebanon. Generally speaking, we are not taking advantage of what is happening around us. We should grasp the opportunity to, for example, build a civil airport in the Bekaa Valley, or use the existing airport to create a regional hub for so-called low-cost carriers. I just came back from the World Travel Market in London, where I had a word with Monarch, which is one of the smallest low-cost carriers in the world. Still, with 34 jets and a turnover of some $1.3 billion, it is twice the size of MEA (Middle East Airlines). On average, they offer a return ticket from London to Cyprus for some $450. Compare that to flights to Lebanon. Also, open the travel section of the Sunday Times and you can fly anywhere in the world on a package deal. But not to Lebanon. As long as we have a monopoly in Lebanon, or a duopoly between MEA and BMI (British Midland International), which is technically bankrupt, prices will not come down.
E External factors aside, what do you think is the main internal problem facing the Lebanese tourism industry?
I’d say a lack of professionalism. Lebanon is like a mezze. You eat a bit of everything but you never get full. For example, we have a casino, but we are not a gambling destination. Our casino is more like a hospital to treat the locals. We have ski slopes, but are not a skiing destination. Do you know any skiing destination in the world that does not have snow cannons? With all due respect, these days we can no longer rely on God alone. Another problem is that the owners of the separate ski stations do not want to cooperate. Yet to create a true ski destination we need lifts from Faqra all the way to the Cedars and snow cannons. Then, and only then, can we become a ski destination.
Likewise, we are not a Mediterranean destination. We need a coastal resort, where you have all the facilities in one place not to get bored for a few weeks. We are not a serious religious destination, even though we have all the sites in the world and no less than four saints. We are not even a serious destination in terms of nightlife. I’ll be frank, a lot of people come here for prostitution, yet the Emirates have much more to offer. In terms of diving we have the Victoria, the only ship in the world in a vertical position, and underwater archeology at Tyre, yet we are not a diving destination. Even when it comes to hiking, we do not take things seriously. There are a lot of jacks-of-all-trades anywhere in the world, yet people want professionalism. We do not take anything seriously. And that is what I’m trying to change. In Arabic we have a saying ‘you do not drink from a well and throw a stone.’ I am embarrassed to say what we throw in this well. It is not just stones. It is rubbish. Tourism represents 22 percent of our GDP. We should invest in it. You cannot create an industry if you do not promote it.
E Talking about promotion, what happened to the LL5,000 ($3.33) airport tax you suggested in 2010?
It did not happen. It was refused as usual. It was meant to be an extra LL5,000 departure tax, which would have enabled us to promote Lebanon. But the whole 2010 budget was refused, including the extra tax. It was not even debated properly. The Ministry of Finance always emphasizes the unity of the budget, but, personally, I don’t see what a LL5,000 promotion tax has to do with the budget of, say, the CDR (Council for Development and Reconstruction).
E What is the budget of the ministry?
It’s ridiculous. It’s less than $20 million, which includes all wages. It is by far not enough to promote the country. But suppose they give me $30 million, even then I cannot spend them. If I tell the World Travel Market I want to participate and ask if I can pay six months later, they will ask me politely to f*** off. For a stand at a fair you pay up front, regardless of what is the official way of doing things in Lebanon.
E Will attracting more Western tourists be difficult considering travel warnings issued by many Western embassies?
Usually, we are not in the market of mass tourism. We cannot compete really. That does not mean we only want jet setters staying in 5-star hotels in Solidere. I love them, don’t get me wrong, but we cannot only rely on them. Fortunately, most educated people in the West know that these travel warnings are political. For example, why did England not issue a travel ban when earlier this year two young Britons were massacred in [Florida]? Is Beirut more dangerous than Bogota? I feel safer in Beirut with an expensive watch than in London, Paris or any city in the United States. Now, I don’t think these bans and warnings are working, but is it making our life any easier? No, not at all.
E In a few words, how would you describe 2011?
2011 was not as good as 2010, yet it could have been much worse. Overall, certainly seeing what is happening in countries around us, I’m happy.
E What to expect for 2012?
Of course, security is very important, but all things being equal, 2012 could be a good year. But, unfortunately, we are experts in losing opportunities. We have an excellent opportunity to build our position. We are currently one of the safest countries in the region. We should grasp this opportunity.
E What are the main challenges?
Well, regional politics of course. Look, if I were responsible for Israeli security I would have only one thing on my mind: a Shiite-Sunni war. Israel is usually very good at studying our weak points, and that is one of our weak points. Today, with the rise of Sunni fundamentalism everywhere, it is very feasible to instigate such a conflict. And the US would be happy with that, as they need a market to sell their weapons. If this scenario becomes reality, all hell will break loose. Closer to home, we really need to redefine tourism in Lebanon. We really need to become a serious destination for the hiker, the religious tourist, the diver, etc. We really need world-class facilities. In addition, I strongly believe that monopolies, and the sisters and brothers of monopolies, are still controlling the Lebanese economy. This has to stop. I don’t believe that Lebanon should have just one casino, one airport and one port. We have to free the travel market, especially when it comes to flights. If you talk to tourism professionals in Jordan and Egypt, they will tell you that they could only break their records once they broke the travel monopoly. If we don’t free the market, we will never substantially expand.