Ask many Lebanese what the summer season this year meant to them, and the answer you get will probably be different than the upbeat assessments of Lebanese officials. Final figures are not out yet, but we can certainly feel that this year was a special one. However, for those in Lebanon not on vacation, we were able to measure this success most often through the breakdown in state infrastructure.
Capitalist culture is more than entrepreneurship; it’s the capacity to deliver on your promises, and Lebanon has yet to convince that it is a premier tourist destination. Here’s a layman’s view of this past summer:
On the negative side, Lebanon’s road, electrical, and telephone infrastructure were very weak links. Even in Beirut, the three-hour power cuts were not enough, as extra rationing was imposed. Outside of the capital the situation was near catastrophic, so much so that from Tripoli to Zahleh people took to the streets in protest. Resorting to generators imposed a financial burden on everyone, but particularly on those establishments catering to visitors, imposing higher costs on all. To run a country on haphazard, unregulated power generation is embarrassing when you lay claim to being an attractive tourist destination.
The traffic situation was equally lamentable — in Beirut and from the capital toward places where tourists were likely to go. The northern highway until Jounieh was, as a norm, blocked most hours of the day, while even inside Beirut a combination of mediocre traffic management, road construction and a high volume of cars meant drivers could spend hours getting from nowhere to nowhere. This imposed further costs on the economy, well beyond what it meant for visitors from abroad.
One can go on. The cellular telephone network was just as bad during the summer season as before. Conversations were routinely cut off, while on several days there was such volume in the system that people couldn’t even complete calls. Gasoline prices, at over a dollar per liter, were onerous, and while this reflected world prices, it was also the result of the uneconomical oil pricing system. If that wasn’t enough, as the summer ended the water began running out, so that in Beirut the national water company was roughly halving the amount of water distributed in winter.
Everywhere, the inability of the state to make basic services available shifted the financial burden onto providers and visitors, so that Lebanon was far more expensive than it needed to be. This year, most visitors were Lebanese expatriates or Arabs from the Gulf who seemed more willing to put up with this. But for the tourism market to grow dynamically, Lebanon’s appeal must spread to other target groups. The international financial crisis won’t soon be absorbed, so the country’s high prices could turn into a major Achilles heel down the road. Meanwhile, many tourists may decide that the headache of this year is not something they want to repeat for some time.
On the more positive side, Lebanon was fun this summer, a place that managed to position itself on the radar as an international niche destination, whether as a party town, a cultural venue — given the many festivals organized around the country — or even as a gay destination, a detail that made its way into the New York Times last month, though precisely how the Lebanese authorities will react to this remains to be seen. The country is rarely boring, and even the beach infrastructure has expanded to include attractive locations all the way up the coast to Batroun, and new venues between Beirut and Sidon. The main problem is the high cost to get in, not to mention the sporadic cleanliness of the sea.
Most flagrant was the absence of any real sense that Lebanon had developed a unified tourism strategy. No one should want the state to organize Lebanon’s summer season; the state can barely organize our off season. However, government institutions could have thought up initiatives to clarify what was taking place this summer, or incentives to make the season more profitable and comfortable. Yet even simple things like an official tourism ministry brochure advertising and highlighting summer events, or more policemen deployed to regulate traffic on major thoroughfares at peak hours, were absent. Special passes to allow tourists to enjoy unlimited bus services, like all other efforts to expand or promote the use of public transportation, were simply off the agenda.
There are a host of strategies that countries will use to promote tourism, including discounts at specific tourism sites, coupons to go to certain restaurants or bars, or the opening of welcome centers in towns or areas to advise visitors about the nearby sights. These require coordination between the public and private sectors. It’s up to the state to set this strategy, even if it relies more heavily on private initiatives. Nowhere was this visible in Lebanon this summer, where the sense of free enterprise may have been high, but the imagination of officials hopelessly low.