Lebanon’s traditional gush of summer season optimism has failed to shroud a painful reality – July was a bad month for the $1.5 billion-a-year tourism sector. Hotels, restaurants, and car rental agencies all acknowledged business was down significantly in July, compared to the same period last year. Industry insiders bemoaned, in particular, a relative paucity of Kuwaiti visitors. The latter account for a sizeable portion of Lebanon’s tourist diet in July and August, the country’s two top-earning tourism months that effectively constitute its summer season.
Observers said the Kuwaitis failed to materialize in early July because of lingering post-Iraq war malaise, simmering Kuwaiti ire over Beirut’s opposition to the war, late school examinations (delayed because of the war) and July 5 parliamentary elections.
“We have been drastically affected,” said Jean Baptiste Pigeon, general manager of the Crowne Plaza hotel on Hamra Street. He acknowledged that the hotel’s occupancy rate for July – 55% – was 20% lower than expected. And an employee with the Budget rent-a-car agency, who asked not to be named, said rentals for July were down 50% over last year. By early August, however, the Kuwaitis had started flowing in. “On the third or fourth of August, we had a phenomenal wave of Kuwaitis,” observed Fadi El-Takkale, director of sales, marketing and reservation at the Radisson SAS Martinez Hotel. He said, when interviewed on August 22, that the hotel had been full since the beginning of the month.
A slightly less enthusiastic Paul Ariss, president of the association of restaurant, café, nightclub and pastry shop owners, said it was too early to tell if the summer season could recoup the losses inflicted by the delayed arrival of Kuwaitis, which he acknowledged had had a “serious effect.” He added, though, that the influx of tourists from the Gulf region as a whole, as well as of Lebanese expatriates, had contributed to a “pretty good” season thus far for Beirut, Bhamdoun, Aley and Beiteddine. Overall, however, “it is not fantastic,” he said. “We will have to wait for the figures.”