Tourism, that perennial contributor to Lebanon’s coffers, could be heading for a dry spell. The deteriorating domestic political situation coupled with widespread regional unrest has made for an arid start to the year, and things aren’t looking up for the rest of 2011.
“The closer we get to summer without a government, the more the tourism sector will be negatively affected since tourists won’t wait until the last moment to [decide] where to go,” said Marwan Mikhael, head of research at BLOMInvest Bank.
Tourism’s direct contribution to Lebanon’s economy amounts to some 10 percent of annual gross domestic product; including indirect contributions (profits of tourism spent in other sectors of the economy), tourism amounts to around one third of the country’s economic output, according to the World Travel and Tourism Council (WTTC). Some 205,000 tourists came to Lebanon in the first two months of 2011, a drop of 12.7 percent from the 235,000 who arrived in the same month last year, Lebanon’s best to date.
“The number of tourists is declining even more due to several factors: political instability and what’s happening in the region,” Mikhael said. “Even though Lebanon is shielded from what’s happening — we won’t have the same revolution or unrest — tourists will be afraid anyhow.”
The effects of a less-than-stellar tourism season on economic output were palpable during the last economic trough after the 2006 war with Israel literally sent tourists fleeing; that year GDP growth reached just 0.6 percent. It since rebounded to peak at 9.3 percent in 2008 and dropped to 8.5 in 2009, the last year for which official GDP figures are available from the national accounts due to a lack of accurate and timely statistics.
Most estimates for 2010 suggested a 7.5 percent growth rate, with the decline sliding into 2011 as the coincident indicator, an average of eight weighted economic indicators published monthly basis by Banque du Liban (BDL), Lebanon’s central bank, fell 4.7 percent from November to January. Barclays Capital and Standard Chartered have revised their 2011 Lebanese GDP forecasts down to 5.5 percent, while BDL Governor Riad Salameh told the press he expected economic growth to slow to 5 percent.
Falling earnings and rising costs
Barclays Capital also indicated that the higher oil prices would increase the price of transfers to Electricité du Liban, which, combined with the government’s recent decision to lower gasoline import taxes by 57 percent, would chip away some 1.5 percent of GDP; these, among other factors, led Barclays to forecast an increase in the budget deficit to 8.2 percent of GDP this year from last year’s 7.5 percent. Standard Chartered expects the fiscal deficit to widen to 9.5 percent of GDP. Lebanon’s total debt topped $52.29 billion in January, up from $51.65 a year earlier, with domestic banks holding roughly 60 percent.
More bad news came as the Economist Intelligence Unit predicted Lebanon’s trade deficit to hit an all-time high this year of $13.75 billion. The country’s Higher Customs Council showed a $550 million year-to-year increase in Lebanon’s balance-of-trade deficit in the first two months of 2011, to $2.35 billion through February. Total exports fell 8.24 percent over the same period to $601 million, with a 20.24 percent jump in imports to $2.95 billion. Export decline will likely continue as Egypt, one of Lebanon’s main export markets, contracts.
Remittances, at an $8.2 billion all-time high last year according to the World Bank, are expected to decrease as regional unrest impacts Lebanese working abroad — particularly in Bahrain. The remittance decline may be mitigated somewhat, according to BLOMInvest’s Mikhael, by higher oil prices leading to increased earnings for Lebanese working in hydrocarbon exporting states.
Another pillar of Lebanon’s economy, the banking sector, saw the $128.92-billion consolidated balance sheet of commercial banks shed over $580.07 million in January. The dollarization rate of deposits is rising again, at 64.38 percent in January 2011, up from 63 percent a year earlier, indicating less faith in the local currency. Loans in the sector were still rising, however, with $30.08 billion in the market as of January, up from $24.66 billion a year earlier.
The property sector is also slowing: in the first two months of 2011, sales transactions fell 18.7 percent year-on-year to 10,630, which included a 26.4 percent decrease in sales to foreigners. A report by The General Directorate of Land Registry and Cadastre shows that despite this dip, the total value of sales was only down 1.1 percent in comparison to this time last year.
Despite these poor indicators, Standard Chartered expects the Lebanese economy to demonstrate its distinctive flexibility. According to them, the economy’s basic structures ought to remain stable thanks to continued confidence in its banking system, and in the central bank’s ability to preserve the American dollar peg and follow an International Monetary Fund-accepted approach toward reducing the public debt-to-GDP ratio.