Tourism Voices – High flying times

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Pierre Achkar: President of the Lebanese Hotel Association and owner of the Printania Palace Hotel in Broummana

E: How many hotel rooms will Lebanon be able to offer its visitors by the end of 2005? How many should it be able to offer? What are the requirements for healthy and sustainable hotel industry development in 2005? What can the public sector do better in supervising and assisting hotels?

We now have around 16,000 rooms. A further 3,000 are under construction. We might have between 1,500 and 2,000 additional rooms by the end of 2005. With the current growth of tourist arrivals, we don’t need more than 1,000 additional hotel rooms a year. If the situation changes and there is a peace process in the region, we could need as many as 5,000 more rooms a year. We’d be on the international tourism map and the Europeans would be coming. For the moment, though, we’re not a big destination for the Europeans. Potentially, they are a big asset. I hope the political situation remains stable. We have some problems with the United Nations because of Resolution 1559. I hope this does not lead to more serious problems. If there is political destabilization here, we will find it difficult to continue attracting Gulf Arabs and to attract more European tourists. When Europe and the United States talk about Hizbullah as a terrorist organization it affects tourism here. European and American officials and media are giving our country a false image.

We must implement a new rating system for hotels. Some hotels have had four stars since 1948, even though they are now only worth one star. We came up with a new rating system in 2002, in an initiative sponsored by USAID. But so far no one in the ministry of tourism has started implementing it because they don’t have the professional manpower to do so.

Nada Sardouk: Director general at the ministry of tourism

E: Despite the fact that the ministry of tourism has been promoting Lebanon on a shoestring budget, improvements in the sector in 2004 have been highly encouraging. How important is the ministry’s role in attracting more tourists to Lebanon and what are your priorities and overall aims – including private sector partnership and fiscal funding – for 2005. What is the role of the public sector in nurturing tourism in Lebanon?

The ministry assumes a number of important roles, among them two major ones.First, the ministry promotes Lebanon outside the country through exhibitions, fairs and promotional campaigns, marketing Lebanon as a historical, cultural, tourist and business center in the Middle East. Second, the ministry is encouraging and backing the private sector so as to attract investment and develop services in the accommodation sector, by simplifying regulations, tightening control and holding training sessions.

The program adhered to by the ministry since 2002 has been one of encouragement and intensification of promotional trips to Lebanon, especially from Europe and the Arab world. The ministry has hosted more than 1,000 travel and tourism agents and around 300 journalists in an effort to put Lebanon on the international tourist map.

We hope in 2005 to enhance the partnership between the ministry, the private sector and NGOs in order to create a task force that is able to complete the projects we have already begun undertaking. Our priority is to enhance sustainable tourism in order to promote economically and socially the different regions of Lebanon all year round.

The role of the public sector is to plan a strategy for the development of the tourism sector – including policies for different domains such as visas, fiscal laws, legislation etc. The public sector should be trying to open new tourism horizons while improving public services. This in turn will bolster the private sector, something that will have a public benefit.

Marwan Iskander: economist and Managing Director of MI Associates

E: What can the growth in tourism contribute to domestic job creation in 2005, in quantitative and qualitative terms? What, percentage-wise, can employment in the tourism sector contribute to the national employment market and to GDP as a whole? What can be done to accelerate the creation of sustainable, permanent jobs in the sector?

The contribution to employment is difficult to assess except in terms of the increase in expenditure associated with the growing number of tourists. This year we had an increase of about 30%. I think we can hope for a further 20% increase. It’s interesting that visitors from Arab countries do not, primarily, account for the increase. The Europeans, especially during the winter months, account for the majority of visitors. By my estimate the roughly 1,400,000 visitors this year spent around $1.5 billion. If we assume that we can reach 1,700,000 and we assume a 5% increase in the expenditure of each visitor then we are talking about $1.8 billion of revenue next year. This translates into an increase of $300 million, which in turn could translate into better job opportunities for around 5,000 people.

In 1974, tourism sector employment constituted 22% of GDP. Today it’s around 9%. So we have a long way to go. Tourism sector employment does not even constitute 9% of the total workforce because people in services such as hotels – although these are labour intensive – are more productive than people in industry. I think that if in the coming five years tourism sector employment reaches around 15% of GDP, then it will constitute around 12% of the national workforce. We need to make of Lebanon a destination for both leisure and historical tourism, on the international level – something we had before. This will require quite a bit of expenditure and investment in promoting Lebanon abroad – which so far has not been done. For example, Jordan spends $50 million on tourism advertising, whereas we spend maybe less than a million. This cannot continue. This year, there has been an increased awareness about the importance of tourism.

Wassim Rizk: Grey Mena Regional Development Director for the Middle East & North Africa

E: Can you gauge the contribution of marketing campaigns such as the CNN Lebanon commercials to the increase of tourist numbers in 2004? Roughly how long, realistically, will it take Lebanon to establish a new image as a top tourist destination in key markets? How should the private and public sectors proceed in 2005, to improve the perception of Lebanon in Arab, Western and Far Eastern markets?

The marketing campaigns, while difficult to gauge in terms of impact, have placed Lebanon on the map, created awareness and communicated a different face of Lebanon. However, you cannot simply erase 20 years of war images from people’s minds in a short period. Any timeline for such a process depends first and foremost, on establishing Lebanon as a brand. What is the country? What does it stand for? What makes it different and special? What does it offer and to whom? It is a similar challenge to that faced by post-Apartheid South Africa. But they had a firm and strategic commitment from their leadership. Imagine how long the process would have taken if that commitment had not been there. The private and public sectors should begin by ending the current madness involved in different bodies running their own programs – the Ministry of Economy is running a campaign, the Ministry of Tourism is running another, Beirut is running a third; the Traders’ Association a fourth; and so on. All the resources and efforts could be pooled and centralized, to bring economies of scale to bear and to deliver a constant and coherent message. Secondly, priority markets must be identified. Which ones offer the most potential? The West? Far East? It is impossible to reach all these regions unless you have a commitment of millions of dollars, like Egypt and Dubai.

Roger Eddé: developer, lawyer and owner of Eddé Sands resort

E: How large is the contribution of tourist resorts to the Lebanese economy today and how large do you expect it to be in 2005 and in the longer term? What are your expectations as resort operator for turnover developments in 2005 and what could be done to define and improve nationwide quality standards for tourist resorts? The success of Eddé Sands (we were able to make over $3,000,000 in revenues for July/August and we will double our capacity in 2005) has confirmed that a luxurious beach resort is a powerful magnet for regional elites as well as Lebanese expatriates nostalgic for Lebanon and yet who demand a level of entertainment and leisure similar to what they are used to in Florida, California, or the European Riviera.

This Lebanese tourist industry is what will make it the destination of choice on the Eastern Mediterranean. We are marketing the Byblos Riviera in the same way Indonesia is marketing Bali in order to disassociate it from another name that brings to mind recent unfortunate events.

The tourism sector should be looked at and valued as a major component of the Lebanese economy, not only because of the sector’s direct and indirect contribution to the economy, something close to 10% of GDP in Lebanon, but because year-round resorts are crucial in creating the so-called PLAQUE TOURNANTE effect. This is where business is launched to neighboring regions in all four directions, enabling the resident and non resident Lebanese international community, as well as emerging regional businessmen, to use Lebanon as the ideal meeting place to combine both work and play and where hopefully, as we aim to do at Eddé Sands, we can offer the widely popular preventive medicine and healing treatments.