According to British tour operators, the Lebanese government is not investing in a properly funded marketing drive unlike Egypt, Jordan and the Gulf states. They complain that there is no Lebanese tourism office in London to provide essential back up for tour operators who have little incentive to sell the country, and there is no financial support for advertising, brochure production and other kinds of promotion – in contrast to support offered by competing destinations. The situation is exacerbated by costly visas, airport taxes, a lack of press coverage and the inflexible pricing of airline tickets.
Last year’s announcement by the Lebanese tourism ministry that the country received over one million arrivals in 2003, is to be applauded. But to talk of a truly international tourism revival seems premature, as the industry appears to be recovering old markets in attracting Gulf Arabs and expatriates – rather than winning new ones.
The real challenge lies in affluent and sophisticated Europe. Get that market and Lebanon will be back in the big league. With new infrastructure, a relaxed way of life, and the re-emergence of Beirut as a smart, hip magnet, Lebanon should be able to compete with other Mediterranean countries in attracting European visitors. But is it doing so?
The British travel frequently and can do so because of a developed outward-bound tourism structure. They like “exotic” destinations and there is much about the climate and easygoing atmosphere of Lebanon to attract them. But is the Lebanese tourism industry exploiting the potential of the British market? The answer, according to leading British tour operators interviewed below, is a clear no. This is what they said:
IS BRITAIN A GOOD MARKET FOR LEBANON?
There is no doubt about Lebanon’s tourism potential. The climate, beaches, the new center of Beirut, cultural heritage, chic shops, the food, the easy going way of life and reasonable prices are all big draws according to the experts.
“Prices are on a par with Egypt and Jordan. We can put together a four-night, four star hotel package for two people sharing, with flights, transfers and tours for under the crucial threshold of £500. We can also offer a seven-night package for under £1,000 which easily competes with Europe. But there is no demand at the moment,” says Hugh Fraser, the Middle East manager of Cox & Kings tour operator.
“Lebanon should be in the same league as Egypt and Jordan. It’s compact and visitors can cover the country from Beirut. But there’s no drive to sell the country in Britain,” says David Deane, marketing manager at Voyages Jules Verne tour operator.
“Lebanon is accessible – only four and a half hours flying time from London – and that’s a big advantage. And Beirut is the most tolerant, sophisticated and cosmopolitan city in the Middle East with a café society, which would attract British visitors if they knew about it – which they don’t,” says Steven Bray, the sales manager at Bales tour operator.
SO IS LEBANON NOT COMPETING?
“The ministry of tourism and Middle East Airlines need to do much more promotion. Last year we booked 15 holidays to Lebanon compared to 500 to Jordan. In a normal year, without a war in Iraq, Jordan generates about 1,500 bookings. Lebanon could easily overtake that figure but it’s just not happening,” says Fraser.
“Last year we sold over 5,000 holidays to Egypt and about a third of those were two center holidays with Jordan. We do not feature Lebanon in our program and I’ve heard nothing from the Lebanese ministry of tourism to make me feel I’m missing out because of this.
“I’m told that Lebanon has a great climate, beaches, shops and night life. But a lot of places have that. There’s a lot of product on the market and if a destination is not promoted it won’t get noticed,” says Kelly Fowles, the product manager for Egypt at Thomas Cook Signature tour operator.
“Tourists worry about security in the Middle East, but we can still sell Egypt and Jordan because their tourism authorities react to this concern and reassure visitors. A problem in one place can mean a market opportunity for another – SARS in China or a hurricane in the Caribbean can mean more bookings for other destinations, provided they adjust prices. But that doesn’t seem to happen in the case of Lebanon,” says Fowles. “Every November at World Travel Mart in London, I seem to meet almost every supplier in the world except somebody from Lebanon. They never come to look for me. Is the ministry targeting cultural tourists, business visitors, conferences, affluent young professionals, charter groups? They haven’t told me anything.”
“Last year we sold 25 holidays to Lebanon, 800 to Jordan and 1,250 to Egypt. We rank some 60 countries in terms of their profitability as destinations to us and Lebanon is number 56. Demand needs to be stimulated by advertising and marketing funded by the Lebanese tourism industry and there’s not much sign of that,” says Raymond Howe marketing manager at Bales. “We sold 8,000 holidays to Egypt, 500 to Jordan, 100 to Syria and 85 to Lebanon last year. A seven-night holiday to Jordan costs £80 less than to Lebanon, because greater volume creates costs savings. Markets need constant adjustments to remain competitive. For example, single travelers to Jordan do not pay a supplement which attracts older travelers,” says Deane.
All the operators interviewed said they received no contributions from the Lebanese authorities for co-advertising campaigns. Advertising creates awareness, image and markets, and also generates data from travel agents for market development.
“Although Lebanon has recovered from the civil war, little is being done to counter out of date perceptions. The country needs a new image,” says Bray. “Visas are inconvenient and expensive. They’re in response to visas for Lebanese visiting Britain, but things could be less rigid. Visas should be abolished or at least granted on arrival at Beirut airport as they used to be,” says Fraser. “Taxes at Beirut airport are about £60 per passenger, compared to about £40 for Cairo or Amman airport, so when a tour operator puts together a package – he will probably use airports at Cairo or Amman rather than Beirut as the gateway.”
Tour operators look for financial support from local suppliers to meet the cost of a page in the brochure. With artwork, production and distribution to, say, 2,000 travel agents, a page can cost about £3000.
“We get a financial subsidy of up to 50% for pages in our brochures from suppliers in Egypt and Jordan,” says Fowles. “We get financial support for our pages from hotels in Egypt and Jordan, from Egypt Air and from the Jordanian Ministry of Tourism,” says Howe. “We get financial support for advertising and promotion from Jordan and Syria but not from Lebanon,” says Deane.
HOW TO REVIVE THE MARKET
The experts agree that Lebanon should reopen its tourism office in London and invest in a properly funded marketing campaign. Marketing needs to be targeted at the right sectors. These could be older affluent travelers interested in cultural tours on 10-day holidays, or high earning young professionals on four-day breaks who want to explore the club, shopping and café scene in Beirut, or the best skiing in the Middle East. The marketing campaign should also develop two center holidays with Jordan, Egypt and Syria.
“A tourism office in London can help us by organizing familiarization trips to the country for our sales staff and press trips for travel writers. Articles in consumer newspapers create a buzz about a destination, and articles in the trade press make operators and travel agents think about doing business with a destination,” says Fowles. “A good tourism office will educate our staff about a destination and also organize meetings for us with the national airline and ground agents so we can make our deals. We have this sort of productive relationship with the Jordanian tourism office in London and with Royal Jordanian Air – but not with their Lebanese counterparts.
“Good press coverage can make a big difference. When last year a leading Sunday newspaper ran an article saying Jordan was now safe, our phones rang big time on the Monday morning. If the Lebanese Ministry of Tourism invited a popular TV holiday program, the pay back would be big.”
Deane thinks that MEA could be more flexible on pricing. “Airfares account for more than half the price of a holiday and if an airline is flying with empty seats it makes sense to take £50 off a £250 ticket so we can pass this discount on to the customer. Flexible pricing always stimulates a market,” he says.
Howe praises the Egyptian tourism authorities for helping the country bounce back after the recent war in Iraq by negotiating competitive rates with hotels and the national airline. “A local tourism office can also facilitate contacts between operators and key people in the host country. If you don’t have these contacts, then the chances are that nothing gets done,” he says.
The Egyptians recently hosted the annual conference of the Association of British Travel Agents in Cairo, which created huge promotion for tourism to Egypt. Lebanon might think about doing the same sort of thing.