Look who’s coming to town

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This summer, Lebanon is riding on a wave of inbound tourism that is, by local standards, monumental. For the first time in recent memory, the month of June saw more than 100,000 arriving visitors. In relation to June 2003, the upward jump amounted to 37.43 % from 97,273 to 133,678 visitors, translating into a 26.4% share of the total 506,367 arrivals recorded for the first half of 2004. And while this increase was by far the largest year-on-year tourism growth for the month of June in a long time, the even better news is that growth rates in other months of this year were more flabbergasting still. In the first half-year of 2004, three out of six months recorded higher percentage wise increases than June: April (106.81%), March (77.16%), May (46.35%), plus January (35.34%) following not far behind.

For the industry, this means a double positive evolution of increasing and more balanced business as the summertime bulge in inbound tourism is becoming less extreme. “The figures for 2004 show a flattening of the curve between high and low seasons. The rise in tourism figures is consistent and very good for the country,” Nada Sardouk, general director at the ministry of tourism, told EXECUTIVE. In line with the good performance of the first six months, she confirmed that the ministry anticipates a total visitor count topping 1.3 million for this year.

The ministry’s optimism reverberates on the ground. From Bhamdoun to Broumana, the summer resort towns above Beirut saw business shift from zero to vibrant several weeks earlier than last year. The up market hotels that are the usual suspects for doing top business in Beirut confirm that occupancy has approached 100% since the beginning of July. And while Saudi Arabia’s new ambassador to Lebanon estimated in a welcomed message that more than 200,000 of the kingdom’s citizens (and coveted spenders) would vacation in Lebanon this year, arrivals of holidaymakers coming from outside the region also show new promise.

According to industry insiders, regional arrivals improved during the phase of changed travel patterns triggered by September 11 but many European tourists stayed away in 2002 and 2003. From this spring, however, the numbers of cultural tourists from Europe increased healthily and also started to include more people of younger age, where in previous years the “junior” in a tour group would often be 65.

Compared to previous years, while visitor numbers of one million per year marked a 2003 watershed and a 1974 visitor count of 1.48 million has again and again been quoted as the benchmark and the number to beat, the summer of 04 thus looks great. It seems a very fitting moment to pause and take stock of the larger potential, the up- and downsides of tourism for Lebanon, through an assessment of its macro-economic role and relevant public and private sector strategies.

On a worldwide scale, tourism is the fastest growing economic sector in two crucial respects: job creation and foreign exchange earnings, according to the World Tourism Organization (WTO), an agency of the United Nations. But although journeying has been called a human compulsion and universal drive since the first members of the human race embarked on migrations across deserts, oceans and mountain ranges, the career of tourism as a significant component in national economies has been more recent than the ascendancy of activities such as manufacturing, trade, finance, and transportation.

Tourism as a modern activity (in its definition as ‘travel for leisure,’ the term has been used officially for less than 80 years) has changed greatly from its beginnings as an elite pastime of wealthy young Britons who from the 18th century onward roamed Mediterranean destinations to escape their dreadful native climate and cuisine, and who greatly enlarged their cultural knowledge and art collections in the process. This elite phenomenon was the prototype of today’s cultural and leisure tourism and also soon came to include health tourism.

Tourism became less the preserve of the elite in the mid to late 19th century through organized mass travel but it really invigorated the economic equation of tourism in the second half of the 20th century. It brought the expansion of leisure journeys into a service used heavily by average income earners in industrial countries.

From a Lebanese perspective, it must appear sadly ironic that the year 1975 – when visitor numbers here came crashing down – is used as the international reference point for the sector’s rise to a new level and the unfolding of massive growth as worldwide tourist numbers broke the barrier of 200 million persons. From 1975 until 2000, this number of tourists tripled and for the coming 15 years, the WTO (which held its first general assembly as an UNDP agency in 1975) estimates another increase to 1.56 billion international tourist arrivals worldwide in 2020. Published in a report titled, Tourism2020 Vision, just before the turn of the millennium, the WTO prognoses calculated global tourism growth at 4.1% annually between 1995 and 2020 based on input from national tourism authorities and global industry leaders. The WTO’s regional forecast for the Middle East presents an even substantially higher outlook of 7.1% annual growth to reach 68.5 million tourist arrivals in 2020. Under this prediction, the Middle East’s share of international tourist arrivals would double over the study’s 25-year period from 2.2% in 1995 to 4.4% of the world total in 2020. However, a new WTO series of short-term assessments of sector developments, called the World Tourism Barometer, showed in its latest edition published in June that the Middle East achieved 30.4 million international tourist arrivals in 2003 (an increase of 10.3% from 2002), already representing a 4.4% share of the world’s 694 million tourist travels. According the findings of the report, Lebanon’s recent tourism boom is fully congruent with developments in the region and beyond. And assuming a 7.1% annual growth rate for the Middle East from this base figure, the region’s intake in tourism by 2020 could even be significantly higher than forecast in Tourism2020 Vision

The importance of tourism in global economic development in general, and the Middle East in particular, is clearly not in question. What requires examination in the macro-economic context, are the potential and strategies for Lebanese tourism relative to competing destinations and global trends on the one hand and the requirements to optimally manage tourism growth on the other hand.

Under the theme of managing tourism in global development, countries and international institutions are increasingly reviewing the link of tourism to economic, social and environmental development. A study undertaken for the World Bank concluded last year that the organization should cover the “operating environment of tourism” more strongly in its projects and country assistance strategies while carefully assessing the benefits of tourism for sustainable development. In all three respects of economic, social and environmental development, tourism growth has been shown to offer substantive benefits to national economies, but also brings with it risks and potential disadvantages.

In economic development, employment growth, increased foreign exchange earnings and heightened Foreign Direct Investment attractiveness are juxtaposed with increased infrastructure costs, inflationary pressures and the possibility of substantial outflows, or leakage, of tourism-related revenue from the economy. In its social and environmental impacts, badly managed tourism can also harm a nation’s living quality by factors such as limiting parts of the population in their access to water and energy, pushing real incomes lower, over-exploiting nature and degrading historic cultural assets.

For middle and low-income countries in the developing world, the contribution of tourism to GDP often assumes an over-proportional importance. Extreme dependency on tourism is a risk especially for small nations with marginal productivity, examples being exotic vacation islands such as the Maldives, Antigua or the Seychelles.

Whilst the country is still in the process of formulating its sustainability agenda for tourism development, Lebanon’s ministry of tourism today assumes an outlook of rapid growth in tourism of 20% and more per annum for at least the next six years. As director general Sardouk confirmed, the ministry’s best-case expectation is for 4 million tourist arrivals in 2010. This is much higher than the paltry 1.71 million tourists, which the WTO projected Lebanon to attract in that year.

Such a performance would also propel the contribution of tourism to the GDP – estimated to range at present between 8% and 10% – to levels for which the ministry today has no projections. Considering that Lebanon is part not only of the Middle East but also located in the world’s number one tourism region, the Mediterranean – which represents an expected slice of 345 million tourists in the global 2020 leisure travel cake – such an aspiration seems entirely reasonable. This is if it also makes responsible tourism development a crucial item on every private and public sector to-do-list.


Thomas Schellen

Thomas Schellen is Executive's editor-at-large. He has been reporting on Middle Eastern business and economy for over 20 years.