Lebanon’s tourism stakeholders have learned the hard way that an over-reliance on one type or one nationality of tourists is akin to shooting yourself in the foot. One need only take a look at cities such as Bhamdoun or Aley – and even Beirut, to some extent, which saw a drastic drop in footfall once tourists from the Arab Gulf decreased their visits to Lebanon – to see the dangers of putting all our touristic eggs into one basket.
As such, private sector investors and civil society groups began developing elements of tourism that would rely more on local demand: one can see signs of these elements through the positive initiatives currently spearheaded by local municipalities across the country. From restaurants and guesthouses opening in rural areas, to wellness retreats and environmental activities, locals and expats have a lot to discover right in their own country.
But despite the flurry of activity, these diversifications are still very much at a grassroots level. If we, as a country, want tourism to truly prosper and be more than a mere internal redistribution of cash, then the government has to devise a national plan which would include the development of infrastructure that would make sure it does.
The Ministry of Tourism has supported rural tourism with a five year strategy and is currently supporting religious tourism initiatives – such as the placement of our Lady of Mantara on the World Religious Map – and cultural initiatives such as developing, alongside the UN World Trade Organisation, touristic experiences shared with neighbouring Mediterranean countries through the Phoenician Route.
[pullquote]Tourism was once the second largest contributor to the country’s GDP and it’s about time more structure and weight is given to it[/pullquote]
Municipalities, in collaboration with international NGOs, are looking at their individual towns’ territorial assets and exploring how they can develop them touristically to attract visitors and improve the local economy. While real potential exists in all those initiatives, they will remain little more than scattered efforts with minimal impact at the country level if there is no solid long term national plan guiding their development.
Tourism was once the second biggest contributor to the country’s GDP and it’s about time more structure and weight is given to it instead of letting it develop haphazardly. The government, along with relevant stakeholders from the private sector, civil society and NGOs, needs to develop a strategy that would incorporate all elements of tourism in Lebanon – from rural to environmental, from religious to wine – under one framework, complete with realistic deliverables, milestones and a clear delineation of responsibility.
Part of this national strategy must be the development of infrastructure to support tourism. Towns like Broumana, Ehmej or Hammana all cited ease of access through the wide highways connecting them to Beirut as one of the main drivers behind their increased footfall. Meanwhile, other towns may have beautiful forests or a significant cultural landmark, but without being fortunate enough to be next to a major highway – municipalities don’t have the authority to develop their own highways – most tourists find it too much of a hassle to get there. Infrastructure is a major consideration in developing tourism, and all areas of Lebanon should be able to benefit from this ease of access to the city.
Despite the security issues in Lebanon, which have unfortunately become almost a fact of life, the country has many beautiful elements to offer. We owe it to Lebanon to diversify our tourism and highlight these elements in a sustainable and organized manner.