Prepared for tourists?

While, economists tend to measure tourism in visitor numbers, employment and/or contribution to GDP, an equally important gauge is the level of infrastructure development and the intensity of tourism “hotspots” (full of enthusiastic tour guides corralling tours through the nation’s must see sites). Theses abound at the pyramids, the Acropolis, St. Mark’s Square, the Louvre and the Eiffel Tower, but apart from a few weary public servants pointing to Roman columns at Baalbek, this level of tourist development has yet to be seen in Lebanon.

The BCD may be crowded night after night, but the continued total administrative indifference to emergency access needs and non-implementation of regulatory codes (which the ministry of tourism proclaimed only a few months ago would “absolutely be enforced before the summer”) in itself tells a story about the current art of managing tourism development.

But even the BCD still doesn’t radiate the air of a conventional tourism hotspot. Neither do Lebanon’s shores bear the mark of highly developed tourism displayed around the Mediterranean by sun-and-fun coastal villages, which rival their countries’ world-famous tourism landmarks as crowd magnets.

In this light, Lebanon’s tourism development is entering virgin territory. While the role of Beirut as Jet Set playground and entertainment attraction in the 60s has been touted ad nauseam, one local expert believes Lebanon never was a tourism destination, at least in the sense it would have us believe.

“Lebanon doesn’t belong to the classic scheme of tourism development of the type you find in catalogues, with hotels by the seaside, buffets, one tennis court per each 15 or 18 hotel rooms, and so forth,” said Guy Gay-Para, holder of a doctorate in tourism and owner of a café at Byblos Port. “This kind of tourism has been developed years ago in countries with dozens of kilometers of undeveloped seashores, such as Morocco, Tunisia, the Spain of Franco, the Portugal of Salazar. Recent history has shown that there never was Lebanese tourism in the classic sense. Lebanon was merely a convenient and convivial location that fused business and pleasure.”

However historical reflection is, it can be argued, irrelevant. The world of leisure travels today is very different from what it was 30 years ago and it is not enough to simply reproduce the past. Consumer behavior is diversifying and maturing. Providers and destinations have to increasingly deliver tourism products and services that are not only price competitive and high in quality but also satisfy social and environmental criteria.


This has not escaped the ministry of tourism (which, incidentally still has to demonstrate that it has a firm grasp of what is expected of it). “Our goal is really sustainable tourism,” said the ministry’s director general, Nada Sardouk. “We are working to develop the ‘Hidden Lebanon’, the many beautiful areas of the country that are not yet on the map. What we want for tourism is to achieve is social and economic development.”

What the ministry still has to demonstrate is a full grasp of what is expected of it. In a measure under its authority, it is currently completing the country-wide installation of sign posts and plans to issue comprehensive visitor maps. Although tourism conservation and development issues are spread over numerous institutions other than the ministry, and budget restraints hamper its operation, Sardouk said the shortage of funds did not present an insurmountable problem for the ministry’s role in tourism promotion, thanks (rather surprisingly) to inter-ministerial collaboration and (not surprisingly) barter deals with the private sector.

A good tourism infrastructure relies to a great portion on general infrastructure, road and transportation networks, water and electricity supply, waste collection and waste treatment. According to Sardouk, major highways and access roads to key tourist areas are in a good working order, but she agreed that general infrastructure needs more work. “The council of ministers has taken the decision to review roads and electricity supply to all mountain villages during the summer,” she said, and optimistically, “We still need a two to three year action plan for infrastructure development on water and electricity.”

While most of its aspects are public sector, a significant portion of tourism infrastructure is created by the private sector, from hotels and car rental companies to tour operators and visitor attractions. Here, the Lebanese state has instituted some support mechanism for the creation of this tourism infrastructure under the stipulations of the IDAL investment law 360, which since 2002 has benefited several large projects.

Although many operators say that they nonetheless do not see enough effective government support for development and usually rely on their own devices to plan and execute tourism ventures in absence of clear-cut communal or national strategy framework, the private sector does credit the ministry of tourism with making efforts in favor of their development.

Sardouk on her part described the partnership between private sector and ministry as “very good.” She added that the ministry is quietly “cleaning the house” of the tourism sector from defunct operators and that the quality of tour guide services is being upgraded under a new law, which, (rather bizarrely) mandates new guides to graduate from a specialized four-year university course. As far as being able to accommodate growing visitor numbers over the coming five years, she said she did not expect any bottlenecks in the supply of hotel rooms and facilities, tour buses, or any other aspect of the sector.

An essential operative aspect for securing functional tourism infrastructure, where private and public sector may find difficulties, is in understanding demand and matching it to what the country can supply or is willing to develop. Here Lebanon is facing an interesting challenge, because even at today’s relatively low inflows, the “typical” Lebanon tourist cannot be easily defined.

The guest from the Gulf region, whether he arrives by private jet, in economy class, or by car, is commonly viewed as a long-term guest, seeking a summer base, shopping and entertainment. Around Beirut and in the traditional mountain resort communities, ample evidence shows that many providers made a priority of developing facilities that appeal to this category of tourist.


Visitors from the Levant countries represent a different category, yet, with Syrian and Jordanian guests ranking third and fourth (after Saudi and Lebanese clients) for total hotel nights booked last year, this group represents a market potential that one hears little about. Tourists from outside the region comprise two distinct major groups: Lebanese expatriates and non-Arab (largely cultural and religious travelers with no discernable ancestral ties to the Eastern Mediterranean).

 

For the time being, data of arrivals and hotel stays (of over 160 nationalities by number of persons, total nights and average length of stay) by the ministry of tourism are quantitative. Because research hasn’t been more specific, the ministry for instance broadly assumes that holders of foreign passports are genuinely foreign as many expatriates enter the country using Lebanese identification. However, in case of second and third generation foreign-born Lebanese, this may not be the case (the number of Brazilian, Mexican and Argentinean hotel clients in 2003, all countries where persons of Lebanese descent make a good share of the population, were comparatively high).

The composition of anticipated future visitor streams, thought to include more and younger individual travelers from out of region, complicates the picture further. Behavior patterns in some of the main origin countries of international tourists digress seriously from public moral standards that apply in the Middle East and many western tourists today expect to be able to openly pursue activities that are not accepted under local behavior codes.

Under maturing trends in interests of European and other international travelers on the other hand, Lebanese tourism can expect to encounter strong and increasing demand for tourism products that they cannot readily supply. Beirut, for instance, lacks a museum that would guide visitors through the country’s cultural and communal diversity or explain the aspects of Lebanese history that people from around the world associate with the country – its exposure to the Middle East conflict. Health, eco- and agro-tourism are vacation growth areas that public and private sector have only recently awakened to and where soft and hard infrastructures need yet to be defined.

With tourism acting as the globalization force in culture, intensification of visitor arrivals would oblige operators and authorities here to embark on a steep learning and action curve in avoiding mistakes made elsewhere during the rise of mass tourism, evolve the tourism infrastructure in a multitude of features, and secure development that can enrich the national existence frame on environmental, cultural, social, and economic terms. In all that, the human element is the combining factor at the core of all tourism infrastructures. “The tourist will know if you lie to him,” said experienced tour guide Francoise Hobeika. “You have to make the tourists see the country through your eyes, let them feel the place and sense the beauty of the land so that they enjoy their visit.”

Besides nine main historic and natural attractions that could all be real tourism hotspots, Lebanon according to Sardouk holds about 190 sites of archeological and cultural interest, many of which are not yet incorporated into the tourism infrastructure. Add to that the country’s human capital and you maximize the power of the destination that might even open up even more untapped niche sectors.

“Among European cultural tourists, many are old and lonely,” said Hobeika. “I have seen seniors who left Lebanon with tears in their eyes and said they would never forget us. They didn’t feel lonely here.” Surely that is incentive enough.
 

Thomas Schellen

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

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