Visitors to Lebanon, what do they want?

Although tourist numbers are on an ever increasing trajectory, finding out their needs still requires work

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Lebanon’s inbound tourism in 2004 kept or exceeded virtually every promise and expectation. After ten months of the year, the ministry of tourism could announce that over 1.12 million visitors had arrived in the country, reaffirming mid-year expectations that this would be the best figures in 30 years and a stepping stone towards future growth.

Stakeholders all around the sector confirmed that the year had been memorable. With the exception of a lower than anticipated turnout during EID AL FITR, hotels reported excellent occupancy rates throughout the year. Tour operators spoke of their best year ever; some were up by 50% or more in 2004 business and already received enough advance bookings for 2005 to foresee continuation of the trend. Tour guides said that even until the middle of November, they were flooded with work showing European groups around the standard sites of interest.

The year had started with some doubts about the sustainability of tourism growth: the summer season alone had proven too short to keep the sector afloat, the composition of visitor flows was uneven, and the funds available for the promotion of Lebanon abroad were far too few. Tourism experts reported from London that the country lagged heavily behind other Middle Eastern destinations in both marketing and bookings.

As the year unfolded, however, things quickly looked up. A series of commercials were produced in collaboration with CNN and shown on the ubiquitous news channel. The spring season surprisingly saw a near doubling of arrivals from Europe, and one of the old world’s leading travel companies, Thomas Cook, returned to Beirut after a long absence. Arab tourism was also in full swing, with Aley and Bhamdoun overflowing with visitors, while new resorts opened along the coast. The nation’s tourism officials enthused about reaching a visitor count of four million persons by the year 2010.

With its progress on all tourism fronts, the year 2004 is also an opportune moment to look at the composition of visitor flows and make efforts to understand their habits, preferences and evolving demands. This seems especially appropriate since the promotion of Lebanon in 2004 was still in its infancy and many operators detected only very limited contributions of the new marketing efforts on CNN to the increase in business. As promotion of Lebanon as a “destination” is still in its infancy and must be accepted as a long-term project in order to bring results, analysis and planning become tasks of vastly heightened importance for the national tourism development.

A thought-provoking statistical exercise on Lebanese tourism trends in 2004 is the comparison of total visitor increases to the number of persons who make the journey to the nation’s classic tourism sites. These comprise the 10 sites where entrance fees and access statistics are collected by the ministry of tourism as well as the Jeita Grotto, which is operated under government contract. From January through September 2004, the most highly frequented cultural sites were the ruins at Baalbek and the Beiteddine Palace, followed at some distance by Byblos and the National Museum. Baalbeck and Beiteddine attracted almost 89,000 and 79,000 visitors, respectively; 49,000 explored Byblos and just under 40,000 found their way to the National Museum.

In terms of increases in visitor numbers when compared to the first nine months of 2003, the four sites saw increases in visits of 32% for the Museum, around 60% for Beiteddine and Baalbeck, and more than 130% for Byblos. This notwithstanding, the four leading historic sites combined this year (again) drew in fewer visitors than the Jeita caves, which counted 321,551 admissions in the first three quarters of 2004. While all five sites, and the other attractions managed by the ministry of tourism, including the Saida and Tripoli crusader castles, Tyre, Anjar, Fakra, and Niha are highly deserving of visitor interest, Jeita can safely be regarded as the one site leading in popularity with regional tourists.

Interestingly, the visitor numbers to Jeita increased not only by 33% in the first nine months of 2004 over the same period in 2003, but also showed a whole-year increase of 10.4% from 2002 to 2003. By contrast, nine out of the ten sites under administration by the ministry had recorded drops in visitor numbers from 2002 to 2003, and only the archeological district in Tyre deviated from the trend by recording a small increase. Therefore, Jeita achieved the most consistent growth of all sites over recent years and could increase its appeal to wider audiences despite its relatively substantial entrance fees. This suggests that the private sector management has succeeded in upgrading the marketability of the caves through augmenting their natural magnetism by integrating a cable car and other sidebar attractions into the concept.

The Jeita approach may be worth a consideration under perspectives of enhancing tourism at other locations. The archeological sites in Baalbeck and Byblos have benefited greatly from the addition of museum facilities but those may not have added all that much for making the sites appeal to audiences who aren’t already interested in antiquities. Experts on promotion of equitable development in Lebanon lament that the community of Baalbek participates only in minimal form in the revenue flow created through Baalbek tourism. This is often associated to some degree with the demographics of the local community. However, the lack of strategic concepts for creating synergies between site and immediate surroundings seems to apply to numerous communities with historic treasures, including Beiteddine and Tyre.

Certainly, one will want to avoid turning revered historic treasures into theme park environments – but at the same time, a strategically integrated development of surrounding areas to offer compatible attractions could enhance both the economic value of sites and their ability to rise in the appreciation of visitors. As urban or communal planning is not practically implemented in many municipalities, a tourism infrastructure development approach could also constitute a novel path towards inducing balanced growth.

For the time being, it can only be said that despite the overall increases in visitor arrivals to Lebanon over the past three years, numbers for admissions to several key historic sites in much of 2004 have only returned to levels similar to those recorded in 2001. For sure, when viewed against the pulling power of the world’s big museums and a whole arrear of moderately famous historic sites – some of which have much less to offer in archeological or cultural terms than Lebanese sites – the current flows to any of the country’s core guidebook attractions account per month to no more than what many other locations rate per week or even day. At least this could be a huge advantage temporarily. In emerging from nothing to becoming a destination, Lebanon has the opportunity to portray itself as a country where visitors can visit world class culture sites without waiting in long lines or dealing with large crowds. Such is a rarity.

The image can even mash with another limited-time opportunity that emerged in autumn of 2004 in terms of exploring new trails in tourism that have been hitherto neglected but may soon enough be part of the beaten path (see box). The project of promoting Lebanon to the resident Lebanese as a treasure cove of uncharted domestic attractions in nature, culinary and religious tourism is a major step towards diversifying the sector in the long term. For 30 years, tourism has been the utopia of Lebanon’s economy – a promised state of being able to attract millions of revelers to the country that perceives itself as the pearl of the Mediterranean.

Like all utopias, the hope looked to be out of reach and went unquestioned as long as it was a theory. In 2004, the utopia stepped towards reality. With it, many an economic vision can grow and at the same time, new questions are to be answered. Elementary management knowledge shows that rapid growth is one of the most challenging periods for any enterprise. Tourists of the 21st century have different expectations from their hosts. They have been alerted to social and environmental issues. They look for authentic experiences. They are great consumers of hospitality. As contributors to the global economy, today’s leisure travelers spend more money on their journeys than ever, but in turn they have high demands and are often fickle and even litigious customers. With such high aspirations for the long and sustained growth of its tourism sector, Lebanon and its hospitality stakeholders have a lot to live up to.

Discover Lebanon

A white-topped peak looms in the distance over hills lined with houses, which from a distance look supremely peaceful. The city awakens to its business exercises, with well attired managers dropped off at their place of work. Overhead, a blue sky and to top it all off, a cruise liner slowly glides into the picture from the left. Date: December 4, 2004. It is 8am and we are a small group that is setting out to take a day-trip to the southern Lebanese town of Hasbaya, where we want to discover the region’s ancient religious heritage.

As the bus drives into a catalogue-perfect day, past banana and olive groves, it carries us through a landscape that, in spite of desertification and erosion, has a mythical ring of clarity. Inside, we hear of the source of the river that is the main tributary of the river Jordan that we are going to visit, of the tombs of Biblical prophets, and of a village where people flock to a stone purported to bear the hoof marks of St. Georges’ horse.

Discover Lebanon is the theme of not only this excursion but an entire program. It is a new and growing branch of tourism aiming firstly at giving Lebanese domestic tourists a new taste for the proverbial variety of the country’s charms, exploring them from cedar forests to tobacco plantations. Activities of the program’s 34 excursions include light hiking and moonlight fishing as well as trying one’s hands at olive picking or one’s tongue in wine tasting, but more daring minds can also opt for (carefully supervised) paragliding and speleological adventures. The program was developed by local tour operators in collaboration with US development consultants SRI with the aims of promoting economic growth for rural Lebanon and opening new avenues for tourism in areas that are attractive but have been bypassed by the tours to the traditional attractions. After a positive response from the first phase in autumn 2004, its second stage trip offering was expanded to more than 70 trips in a winter/spring 2005 catalogue.

Tour operators participating in the program found the experience encouraging. “It is positive to have local tours for the Lebanese, because they often don’t really know about Lebanon,” said Tania Amm, inbound tourism manager at operator Wild Discovery. The company decided to increase their participation in the second stage of the project from two to five tours, she said.

“This project enhanced and supported my business,” said Pascal Abdallah, manager of operator Cyclamen, who devised the trip to Hasbaya. Through his participation, he found access to domestic customers and even entered a project partnership with another operator.

Of course, not everything in the new tours goes picture perfect. The weather is not always providing blue skies with winter sun and some trips in 2004 had to be cancelled for falling short of minimum attendance. The tour of Bekaa vineyards, organized by Wild Discovery, showed that the idea of a Lebanese TOUR DE VIN could benefit from better coordination among wine producers in creating presentations that compliment each other. As for Hasbaya, the emphasis was a bit stronger on visiting a mosque, a church and a Druze mausoleum than on learning about the respective religious heritages. But such imperfections account for part of the enticement; they remind you that these tours are not routine yet. BOX II: Resorts

With regards resorts, the year 2004 started with a thunderclap in January when developers As Salam presented their project for transforming the back slopes of Mount Sannine into Sannine Zenith, a resort of in the country previously unheard of proportions. Residential villages, hotels, ski slopes, golf courses and all the trimmings of recreation and relaxation were outlined in the Sannine Zenith brochures.

With the tremendous scope of the project – despite declarations of some downsizing after stirrups over its alleged sellout of one percent of the nation’s territory, the plans aim for inclusion of about 100 million square meters of land – it could be premature to consider Sannine Zenith a done deal. But with the announcement of Sannine Zenith, the perspective of Lebanon resort tourism got widened in a single instant. The mountain resort was such vast a project that it clearly needed to appeal to more than a small clientele of the very wealthy. It showed that for an economically sound future, new Lebanese resorts would have to provide class at affordable cost.

Already in the preceding years, people with resort ideas had elevated the pastime of a relaxing day on the beach to a new level of recreational quality – without making the pleasure contingent on long-term club membership or expensive shareholding. From Oceana to La Voile Bleu, quality beach resorts became synonymous with customer satisfaction. Resorts following this philosophy in 2004 achieved good profits. The evolution pointed also at the potential of good beach resorts to become all-round centers of enjoyment. Expanding their range into nighttime activities was slow for some but others, like Edde Sands, reported that about one third of their customers and their revenue in 2004 came from special events and evenings. Well-designed beach and après-swim resorts have every potential for contributing to the further blooming of domestic and inbound tourism.

Thomas Schellen

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