The livin’ is easy?

What is standing in the way of a Lebanese beach tourism boom?

Photo by: greg Demarque/Executive

A quick online search for ‘Lebanon in the 1960s’ reveals dozens of photographs celebrating Mediterranean leisure. Some show people lazing on the sand in what appears to be a public beach, others are of smiling women water skiing with a backdrop of the glittering sea and an equally glittering resort, and others still are of those enjoying a swanky beach club—defined as properties where one pays an entry fee to access a pool area and services—and five star resort pools, which are the same concept but with a hotel by the sea.

It is clear that the sea was one of the major attractions for tourism in Beirut back in the day. Today, a few of the beach clubs and resorts from the 1960s are still operational and many others have entered the arena, outgrowing the boundaries of Beirut to spread across a significant portion of Lebanon’s 225 km long coast—pretty much wherever is not occupied with agricultural or industrial areas.

While these outlets had their years in the sun, lack of proper planning, sea pollution, a highly competitive market, and a dearth of tourists have all taken their toll on beach resorts and clubs—and hence on beach tourism in Lebanon.

Back to the beginning

In the late 1950s, saints ruled Beirut’s coast starting with Lebanon’s first resort hotel Saint Georges (located in downtown Beirut) and moving on to beach clubs Saint Simon and Saint Michel, both of which were in Ouzai, on the southern outskirts of Beirut—which was back then the “it” location for beach clubs in Beirut. “The concept of beach clubs was popular historically and the most beautiful and biggest beaches were in Ouzai and Jounieh. Jounieh served more as a public beach, but Ouzai was where the best clubs were: St. Simon, St. Michel; Pepe Abed also had a beach there and it was “the” place by all means. When planes would come to Lebanon [tourists] would see that, and the first thing they would do is book a hotel in Ouzai,” recounts Roger Edde, owner of Eddésands Wellness and Beach Resort in Jbeil. This proliferation of saintly resorts led people to affectionately call Ramlet al-Baida’s public beach Saint Balesh (Saint Free). Sporting Beach Club was another successful beach club of that period, and it remains in operation to date, banking on its now vintage and nostalgic appeal.

Between the late 1960s and 1978, several resorts opened their doors, including Riviera, which opened as a hotel in 1956, and then got a permit to develop its beach in 1968. Summerland opened its doors as a resort in 1978, while La Siesta, a resort in Khalde, launched in the 1970s. “La Siesta was among the best resorts in the country. In July 2017, the owners decided to reopen it and bring back fond memories to many,” says Walid Yammine, the resort’s current general manager.

The intensification of the civil war in Lebanon brought an end to all these midsummer night dreams and Ouzai’s glitzy resorts became home to those fleeing the war, while other resorts and beach clubs in areas heavily exposed to bombing were temporarily—or permanently— shut down.

While the civil war brought the shutters down on Beirut’s resorts, it brought a new dawn to coastal properties starting from Nahr el-Kalb to Safra, and gave birth to the concept of chalet clubs or private beach resorts where one has to own a chalet—or be a guest of someone who does—to enter. Such chalets were often used by their owners as a refuge from the war (see box page 25 for more on modern day chalet projects).

The rebirth of resorts

With the end of the civil war in 1990, investors once again turned their eyes to the shore to study the feasibility of recreating the heydays of Lebanon’s beach tourism. Ouzai had changed demographically and was no longer suitable for beach clubs, so investors headed further south to the sandy beaches of Jiyeh, on the outskirts of Saida, with Bamboo Bay beach club opening in 1999 and Voile Blue, also in Jiyeh, in 2003 (it later moved to Jbeil).

But it was not until 2003 that beach resorts—complete with a hotel and multiple F&B outlets—made a comeback in Lebanon with international brand Mövenpick opening in Beirut’s Raouche, and newcomer Eddésands opening first as a beach club then as a hotel two years later. In explaining his decision to open a beach resort in Lebanon, Edde says he wanted to somehow recreate, in his hometown of Jbeil, the beautiful surroundings and quality of life he enjoyed when living on the shores of south of France. What began as a small rustic project that mainly catered to family and friends soon expanded: “In 2003, we decided to go big and go for something that would compete with the likes of Nikki Beach [one of the first luxury beach resort concepts] when it comes to funky nightlife and a beach bar,” he says.

At the time, large scale hospitality projects by the beach—especially in a then remote area like Jbeil—were rare and Edde says his intent of enticing people to come from Beirut to Jbeil for the resort was met with outright skepticism. But he says he knew the project would be a success for several reasons: “I knew it would work in Lebanon because, when [living] in the south of France, I met many Lebanese who had come back to Lebanon and were looking for fun activities like they had abroad, so I thought that if I made a good offering, people like me would come. Second of all, the Arabs, the European elites, and the Americans back then were in the south of France. Why? Because it is on the Mediterranean, they have the good weather and fun facilities. So I thought a good idea would be to have another destination like that, but in Byblos [Jbeil],” recalls Edde, adding that his idea worked and the resort was wildly successful during its peak years.

An unsettled sea

The political situation being what it is in Lebanon, beach clubs and resorts would have a couple of great years before a crisis hit and business slowed down only to skyrocket the following season. During the 2000s, investments continued to be made in coastal areas—mainly in Jiyeh and Rmeileh in the south and Jbeil in the north—but they were more in beach clubs than resorts.

With the onset of the Syrian crisis in 2012, tourism in Lebanon went into a steady decline (see overview page 16). As result, many beach clubs have either shut down or re-conceptualized their experiences to stay afloat in a competitive market (for more on beach clubs, see article page 41). On the other hand, beach resorts—with their hotels—seem to be more equipped to weather a stormy sea.

Hotels remain operational throughout the year, therefore sustaining a resort property during the winter. “Veer opened in 2012 as a beach club with only a few bungalows. The next year we opened a hotel property with 31 rooms. The original plan was just to have a beach club, but beach clubs are purely seasonal, so we decided to go into the hotel business to be able to work year-round although there is still a difference between the volume of work in the summer and in the winter,” says Adella Bassim, operation manager at Veer, adding that in winter they work on low-season rates and mainly  cater to corporate accounts in their vicinity in by hosting conferences and events.

Indeed, all resort operators Executive interviewed spoke about the conferences and events they host on their properties during the winter. General manager of Mövenpick Chadi Gedeon speaks of his hotel as being a “five star business hotel with resort facilities,” while the general manager of Kempinski Summerland Hotel and Resort Daniele Vastolo says they attract pharmaceutical companies who come for conferences and reserve hotel rooms.

For Nizar Alouf, board member of Riviera Hotel, the beach club and hotel complement each other. “Having a hotel really helps us in summer, and the beach adds value to the hotel as well. Tourists have a wide variety of hotels in Lebanon to choose from, so when looking among them they choose Riviera because of the pool, especially in the summer. In winter, they come for the service and also for the beach because we have good weather in Lebanon year-round and foreign tourists appreciate that,” he explains.

At first, the 86 chalets in La Siesta were planned to be rented out on an annual or seasonal basis, but the market demand was more in weekly or weekend usage, explains Walid Yammine, general manager of La Siesta, so they re-conceptualized them as hotel rooms that people can book on a nightly basis. Yammine says they were fully booked for the Eid weekend and expects to have a strong summer for the chalets, driven mainly by local Lebanese and expats looking for a getaway.

Another day in paradise

To maximize their revenues, many of these resorts allow for day visitors to access the property by paying an entrance fee, just like they do at a beach club. “The beach club is more economically beneficial for us because we have daily entrance fees, whereas we only have 35 rooms in our property. But they support each other in that we have many people who come spend the weekend in the summer—30 percent of those who come to Veer stay in the hotel. In the summer we have an occupancy of 85 to 100 percent,” says Bassim.

Three months after its re-opening in 2017, Kempinski Summerland Hotel allowed day passes, which at first were for a limited number of people to ensure quality service, but then gradually the number of guests increased. “We decided to have this because we did not want to be seen as a lonely entity; we want people to enter. Summerland was very popular with the Lebanese in the 80s and 90s, so how would they feel if they cannot access it?” asks Vastolo, explaining that the hotel also has 500 privately owned cabins whose owners are allowed to bring four guests each. This and the day passes support the hotel by bringing in more business to their F&B outlets, he says.

Managing a budget

The slowdown in tourism, the dwindling purchasing power among locals, and the increased cost of doing business have created a situation where resort operators are feeling the stress. Edde says, “One of the biggest expenses we are paying is electricity because we can’t use the Lebanese government supply—when it is available—because it is not regular and will damage our sensitive machinery. And then you have to put an entrance fee which is comparative [to the region], and when you do that, you are losing money,” adding that their costs end up being higher than the revenues generated from their clients.

Alouf also mentions taxes, explaining that since Riviera is located in an upscale area they have to pay more maritime taxes than neighboring resorts or beach clubs in Beirut. “When Riviera is paying a certain amount of money to the state, and beach B is paying less than that, what shall we do? Shall we make customers pay more than they do in beach B? It is a real problem,” says Alouf, explaining that they finally decided to increase their entry fee while improving their services in order to distinguish themselves from other resorts in proximity. Still, with a short season and lower resort occupancy during weekdays compared to the weekend, Alouf argues that operating a resort is not as profitable as people assume. “We have the taxes, electricity, services, treatment of water, and maintenance, which is very costly being exposed to sea air and water. People think what they are paying is pure profit, but it is not the case,” says Alouf.

La Siesta’s Yammine says maintenance of their 20,000 square meter resort is the biggest expense. “Fixed expenses are the highest; as for operational costs we try to manage by having the right staff at a good salary. We try to cover our fixed costs during the summer when we have the high season,” he says, explaining that they have managed their profit by creating affordable options for their customers that include packages that combine both entry fees and some F&B expenses, and affordable F&B choices.

Waves of pollution

Whether it is a resort or a beach club, the impact of the waste crisis and subsequent ministerial decisions on sea water, and thus on beach resorts, cannot be overemphasized. All resorts operators Executive spoke with, no matter where they were located in Lebanon, said that the fact that the sea is polluted with both visible and invisible waste has negatively impacted their business.

Vastolo says the sea is more of a liability than an asset for them at Kempinski, which is located in Jnah on the border of Ouzai. “For us it is very frustrating because we are very close to the sea, and this should be one of our strengths, and instead it is something we cannot really capitalize upon because of the sea pollution. We are very happy that there is a neighboring hotel which will open its doors soon, and we actually hope that with the opening of this hotel, the government will be more sensitive to the fact that people will come here to enjoy the sun and sea, but unfortunately next to it there is open sewage overflowing on the sand and going straight into the water. It definitely affects the quality of the water, and this is something you cannot run away from. We have a red flag displayed constantly on the sand and when our clients ask us why, we have to be very transparent and tell them,” he complains. Gedeon says that at Mövenpick they constantly monitor their online reviews, and complaints about the quality of sea water are increasingly prominent.

Yammine says that not only are E. coli levels in the sea water near their resort constantly high—they run regular checks—but they also suffer from visible garbage which they have to clean several times per day to maintain the quality of their shore. “When you are by the beach and see a piece of a garbage the first impression you will get is that our resort is dirty, even if the garbage is not from us, so we are trying to avoid reaching that point. The waste crisis that happened only two years ago is not something to take lightly since a lot of garbage was thrown [out] haphazardly during that period,” he says.

Veer suffers from both visible garbage and the near constant emissions from the Zouk power plant, putting a damper not only on guests’ experience, but also on their outdoor furniture—which has to be cleaned daily or will turn black—and on the quality of the sea water adjacent to them.

Even in areas where sea pollution is low, people’s impressions regarding the sea water in Lebanon leaves them hesitant to take a dip. “People love to come to Eddésands, but they spend most of their time in the pools. I tell them ‘I swim every day and drink water from the sea,’ but they don’t believe me. They don’t even dare to come into the sea when we have a fabulous sandy beach where you can walk for 50 meters in the sand and you cannot benefit from it. You are really fighting a difficult war,” Edde says.

All of the resort operators Executive met with say that as a result of the sea water pollution, they put in extra efforts into their pool experiences either by having additional pools or by providing pools with distinctive features.

A brighter horizon

Despite these challenges facing resort operators in Lebanon, it seems not all hope is lost for a stronger beach tourism offering in Lebanon. Investments are being made into resorts in several areas along the coast, which indicates that people still see potential there.

Existing resort operators are keeping the faith knowing that, with the proper master plan and real intent for change, things could turn around. “As hoteliers, we would love the government to take a stand and say, ‘You know what? We have a coast line, so let us capitalize on that.’ This is what Italy did in the 1980s when they were in the same condition as well, but the government decided to take a stand and make the coast attractive. Italy is just the same as Lebanon in that we have good food, history, fun, and mountains, but Italy has invested so much money and commitment from generation to generation to be more attentive, and we are getting the results now,” says Vastolo, who is Italian. For the sake of beach tourism in Lebanon, let us hope we decide to do things the Italian way.

Ahmad Barclay & Nabila Rahhal

Click on image to enlarge

Ahmad Barclay & Nabila Rahhal

Click on image to enlarge

Nabila Rahhal

Nabila is Executive's hospitality, tourism and retail editor. She also covers other topics she's interested in such as education and mental health. Prior to joining Executive, she worked as a teacher for eight years in Beirut. Nabila holds a Masters in Educational Psychology from the American University of Beirut.

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