Last month, two shark-like super yachts sat in Solidere marina, the sun’s reflection glinting menacingly off their blacked-out windows. Inside, built-in swimming pools, jacuzzis, radar masts and other space age gadgets come as standard. But that’s what you get for $60 million, a price range that shuts out all but the biggest spenders – and it is these that Lebanon’s marina owners want to woo as an increasing number of Arab owners are looking for suitable destinations to moor their boats. “It is a growth industry. We have more marinas and more people coming from the Gulf,” said Mohamad Chehab of Chehab Marine, a yacht accessory shop in the Starco building. The local yachting sector can be divided into two segments: sailors (mainly European), who include Lebanon in an Eastern Mediterranean cruise itinerary, and Arabs, mainly from the GCC nations, seeking to permanently moor a boat in a Lebanese marina. Not surprisingly, those in the industry are most excited about business coming from this latter group of high net-worth individuals.
“I have received had ten phone calls today from Kuwaitis and Saudis interested in yachts. It’s incredible. It’s the first time in 12 years that I have noticed this demand coming from Gulf residents,” Chehab said. This could be explained by the post-9/11 effect that has seen many Arabs eschew Europe for the delights of Lebanon. Many in the sector believe it will only be a matter of time before a yacht will become the ultimate accessory of the well-heeled Arab. “Wait one year and you will be amazed. Just think of all the luxury apartments you have in downtown, many of the people who will buy these will also be interested in boats,” Chehab said.
Investors in turn are keen to get a slice of this pie and are now showing more interest in the sector. It is rumored that several big marina projects are planned in Lebanon with property developers from Dubai showing interest. “We know of three or four (marinas) that are going to be launched in the coming years. One in the south and one in Beirut, and we expect to have some up north,” said Christine Asmar, project manager with International Fairs and Promotions (IFP), the company who with its German partner, Messe Duesseldorf, organized the recent Beirut Boat Show that attracted roughly 18,000 visitors.
“We all know that this is a country where everything lends itself to the marine industry: the weather is nice for nine months a year, it’s never too windy, it’s never to rainy and it’s conveniently located in the Mediterranean,” said Asmar. Interestingly enough, despite these relatively ideal sailing conditions, there seems to be little interest in sail boats, as most Arabs buyers are interested in engine-powered boats. “In the [global] super yacht segment, 20% are owned by Arabs,” said Asmar.
Prior to the Beirut Boat Show, now in its fourth year, IFP conducted a feasibility study that pointed toward major future growth in the industry. “The market projections for marinas and other water front facilities in the whole Middle East and Lebanon would be about $20 billion, with Lebanon’s potential estimated at $1 billion,” Asmar said. Although it could be argued that any report commissioned by the expo organizers may not be entirely objective, the potential was borne out by unprecedented sales at this year’s show.
“The highest number of visitors we had was in 2001. But the spending power was greater in 2004. It’s not the quantity that is important it’s the quality. A lot of sales took place at the show this year,” she said. “We also had a bigger participation on the international level.” Asmar said she felt that Lebanon and Dubai both catered to different markets and were not really in competition with each other. “Dubai is not a rival. We had exhibitors from Dubai this year and they are the people who confirmed to us that this is a complimentary market to Dubai, it doesn’t compete in any way,” said Asmar. “The region is big and the investments so huge that we can afford to have two shows, one in Beirut one in Dubai.” Asmar added that water sports centers on the Sinai Peninsula, such as Sharm el-Sheikh, attracted a different kind of market, one more interested in diving and other activities than yachting.
There are three large-scale marinas in Lebanon, Joseph Khoury in Dbayeh, Automobile et Touring Club du Lebanon (ATCL) in Jounieh and Solidere marina, near the old St Georges hotel. ATCL, a non-profit private club and the oldest marina in Lebanon is almost always full, said director Nabil Gemayel. Most of the club members are Lebanese but Gemayel said the club often attracts Europeans coming from other Eastern Mediterranean destinations. “We receive every year around 40 or 50 yachts from Cyprus, Turkey and Greece,” he said.
The Joseph Khoury marina in Dbayeh opened five years ago and is arguably the biggest marina in the Middle East, with 700 berths and 200 staff. Manager Joe Bassoul said the occupancy rate was around 30%, but he believes business will improve as the marina – the newest in Lebanon – becomes more established. “It needs time before you can improve the situation,” said Bassoul, who added that the boats in his marina ranged from small size yachts to bigger boats, with usually around 15 luxury yachts moored in the facility.
Imad Dana, manager of the new Solidere marina, said that 95% of the members are Lebanese. The marina boasts around 150 boats in the 250 berth marina and Dana said he expected to see an increase in interest. The Solidere marina employs around 40 people, but Dana added that many of the bigger yachts have their own crews, some with as many as 20. Fueling the new interest in boating are two yachting events in the country: ATCL recently hosted the Emir Rally, a boat race across the Mediterranean, and Solidere marina will be the starting point for the La Route d’Elissa boat race that involves 10 sail boats with all female-crews racing from Lebanon to Tunisia. However, despite this new bubble of optimism, Lebanon still cannot compete with yachting hubs in Turkey, Cyprus and Greece where easy air access, cheaper mooring prices and stable politics attract European yacht owners. The key to Beirut’s attraction is that it is the genuine destination for Arabs to come and play on their boats. Although Dubai has some of the biggest sea-front developments in the world, such as the massive Palm Island project, many in the Middle East and Gulf are more interested in mooring their boats permanently in Lebanon, where the lifestyle is more in keeping with the yacht-owning culture.
“It’s very hot in the Gulf so they never use their boats and there are no destinations. In Lebanon, we have created summer resorts all over the coast,” said Chehab, who was at pains to mention that it wasn’t only the Gulf owners who were buying and mooring boats in Lebanon. “You have a lot of Lebanese emigrants coming from abroad and buying boats here,” said Chehab, while Alain Maaraoui, managing director of Sea Pros, said most of his sales were to locals. “Sales are going up, although last year was better than this year, but mostly they are Lebanese.”
Nonetheless, Lebanon could do more to attract visits from European yachters. Aside from the hazy images of war and uncertainty, Lebanon faces a major a hindrance with red tape in the customs and general security procedures, which deter foreign visitors. “It’s too much paperwork and people prefer not to go through that and just go somewhere else,” Asmar said. Moreover, bureaucracy makes it difficult for boat owners to leave their non-Lebanese registered boats here for longer than six months; this is in contrast to Turkey, where there is no time limit on mooring periods for foreign boats.
The conflict with Israel also restricts movement along the Lebanese coast. “To go through the Lebanese coast is not really permitted by the Lebanese authorities. They prefer the boat to come and stay in the marina and then people can visit the coast by car,” said Gemayel.
Cost is another factor that may put off the price-conscious European boat owner. Lebanon simply cannot compete in the Eastern Mediterranean. Average mooring prices in Lebanon are $350 per meter a year for smaller boats, with the price rising to around $600 a year for larger yachts. This is almost double the mooring charge in Turkey and Cyprus. But many in the industry say prices will drop as soon as there is more competition. “When there are more marinas the price will go down,” Asmar said.