The celebration of Eid el-Fitr on June 16 marked the beginning of summer 2018 in Lebanon. As the season kicks off, all those in the tourism industry are speculating over whether it will be as good a season as summer 2017, or whether tourism will take a turn back to the bleak summer days of 2012 to 2016. Despite a rocky end to 2017—with current Prime Minister-designate Saad Hariri’s since-rescinded resignation at the start November—the first quarter of 2018 was off to a good start. According to the Ministry of Tourism, the total number of tourists in Lebanon rose from 345,168 in the first three months of 2017 to 362,398 in the same period in 2018. This jump was led mainly by tourists from Europe and America, who together constituted 49.56 percent of all visitors to Lebanon in the first quarter. Performance numbers for the second quarter of 2018 are not yet available, but since summer has become the main touristic period for the country, all eyes will be on the next two months to determine what to make of 2018.
Of summers past
Tourism in Lebanon—the success of which had always been a roller coaster ride, dependent on internal and regional stability—was set on a downwards trend with the onset of the Syrian crisis in 2012, before taking a slight upwards turn in 2017, most likely as a result of the election of Michel Aoun as president at the end of 2016, and the resulting increase in political stability. However, this upturn was nothing to write home about, according to those in the hospitality industry, and was not comparable to the tourism witnessed in Lebanon in summers before the Syrian crisis. So far, according to those in the industry, it seems that 2018 is shaping up to be a repeat of the preceding summer. “Summer 2017 was a very good one compared to the previous year , but not to be compared to the strong summers like 2008, 2009, and 2004. We are still very far from those summers. [Summer] 2018 is shaping up to be hopefully the same as 2017, but not better,” says Chadi Gedeon, general manager of Mövenpick Hotel and Resort Beirut.
Indeed, the dismal touristic seasons of recent years have lowered the expectations of Lebanon’s hoteliers. “We are seeing a light [at the end of the tunnel] this season, with better reservations so far in the year, and [we] are seeing more foreigners in the city,” says Nizar Alouf, board member at Riviera Hotel. “We hope that finally June, July, August will be good for Lebanon, and of course for us. The hotel industry these days is not looking to make money but to break even or not to lose money compared to the loss of money in past years.”
Will they or won’t they?
Although 2017 was marked by the slow but steady return of tourists from the Gulf, Hariri’s resignation announcement in November 2017 caused regional tensions to rise again, explains Daniele Vastolo, general manager of the Kempinski Hotel.
Whether summer 2018 will see more visitors from the Gulf to Lebanon is a subject of speculation amongst Lebanon’s five star hoteliers. “Every business today in Lebanon is suffering, in my opinion, from the boycott of the Gulf and Arab tourists over the last few years,” Roger Edde, the owner of the Eddésands Hotel and Resort, says. “This [boycott] is supposed to be formally lifted this year. What may help us is that there are serious tensions between Turkey and the GCC countries because of Turkey’s connection with the Muslim brotherhood and Qatar, and so many who had deserted us for Turkey might change their minds.” He continued: “Besides, Turkish people don’t speak Arabic, while Lebanese do. Lebanon is a small country that [Gulf nationals] know very well. They miss Lebanon.”
Gedeon says Movenpick had seen an increase of Arab Gulf visitors over this year’s Eid, as compared to the same period last year, but that with travel advisories cautioning nationals from some GCC countries against visiting Lebanon not yet officially lifted, he is not expecting a drastic increase in their numbers. Thus, business continues as usual and hoteliers must keep looking to develop other markets while keeping a longing eye on the Gulf.
For Beirut’s Kempinski Hotel, local Lebanese looking for a “staycation” have grown into a significant market this year. “In the last few months, we have been very strong with the Lebanese market itself, and 40 percent of our guests are Lebanese,” Vastolo says. “You have expats coming to visit their family, and, as a new market, we are having Lebanese coming from the south or the north for a little retreat here.” Moreover, he noted, new Kempinski hotels in Africa would likely make African guests a future growth market for Kempinski Lebanon.
Gedeon says that expatriate Lebanese have become the country’s main leisure tourists. “Ideally, our occupancy is supposed to be a 50/50 division between leisure and business, but these days, unfortunately, it is 70 percent business,” he says. “This is because there is no real leisure segment in Lebanon yet. We have the Lebanese expats who come back for the summer and this is our leisure market: they come for two weeks and don’t want to open their house or sometimes they don’t have houses in Lebanon. It is a strong segment but it is not enough.”
Widening the net
For the past few years, most of the people making up the tourism crowds in Lebanon have been Lebanese expats, residents of Lebanon, and Europeans. The tourism industry has thus had to diversify its offerings to cater to these groups of tourists, whose expectations of a vacation may differ from those of a tourist from the Arab Gulf—which had prior to 2012 been the main market to which Lebanon catered. As such, alternative tourism segments such as rural, religious and food tourism have been developed, bringing significant advantages to the communities in which they have been established.
Driven by the search for non-polluted beachesnd the high entry fees of most private beach clubs and resorts, beach tourism has been developing on public beaches like Sour’s, and Anfeh’s Tahet el-Rih, and is attracting Lebanese and European tourists alike. Beach bars, where one can enjoy a drink steps away from the water and without paying an entry fee, are also gaining popularity and have attracted seasoned hospitality investors. Meanwhile, beach resorts and clubs are coming up with innovative packages and concepts to attract new customers, but are struggling to stay abreast amid mounting costs and encroaching marine pollution, which works against their best efforts to provide a refreshing escape for those who choose to pay entry fees.
Only time will tell what summer 2018 will bring to the Lebanese tourism industry, but stakeholders in the sector will hopefully have learned their lesson, and will continue to work on the country’s nascent alternative tourism options and on the new markets that have opened to Lebanon—while not forgetting about our neighbors, the tourists from the Gulf.