Every summer, people flock to the towns and remote areas of Lebanon for the festivals. Local residents anticipate those events for the publicity they bring to the area and for the obvious economic benefits to the restaurants and hotels there. This year, however, was not like the last. Ehdeniyat International Festival, Ehden’s annual summer festival, for example, was cancelled.
“We were forced to take this decision a month ago,” says the festival’s media representative Joelle Hage, “when our international artists cancelled their contracts due to their worries about the unstable situation in North Lebanon.”
Fortunately, since the festival was set for August no tickets were sold yet, but months of preparation went to waste. While some of the planned events like the Free Children’s Village will still take place, says Hage, the budget is now much lower and only local residents are expected to attend. Hage explains that Ehdeniyat is organized by the nongovernmental organization Al Midan — which focuses on health, rural development and environmental conservation — as a fundraiser, with all profits going to the NGO, while the event has also brought spinoff economic benefits to the hotels and restaurants of the area.
Lebanon’s unpredictable political situation might have also caused a decrease in attendance at festivals in South Lebanon. “I know of many who were reluctant to attend concerts in Beiteddine as they were worried the roads would be blocked on the way to, or back,” says Bernard Farah, onwer of Diwan Al Farah Restaurant, who annually operates a snack stand on the grounds of Beiteddine as he remarks on the more somber mood of this year compared to 2011’s high spirits and full houses.
Vacation hotspots cool down
The decrease in tourists this year also affected the festivals, with Abdo Hussein of Virgin’s ticketing office estimating that only 10 percent of the tickets they sold went to non-Lebanese. Hala Chahine, organizer of Beiteddine Art Festival, says it is the norm to have more Lebanese than foreigners attending the festival. “Annually, we usually have 20 percent Arab attendees,” said Chahine in early July, “but we have not felt their presence yet this year.”
While Elga Trad, a Baalbek International Festival Executive Committee member, admitted that Baalbek Festivals are not selling as well as last year, she refrained from attributing this to one specific reason.
“We are understandably affected by the political unrest of the region, but we are doing better than we expected considering the situation,” says Latifa Lakis, organizer of the Byblos International Festival. She reported in mid-July that they had sold more than half of the available tickets, with BB King, Kadem al-Sahir and Snow Patrol, all since selling out.
Surprisingly, according to Hussein, the Virgin ticket office — which handles most festivals and large events in Lebanon — has seen a 30 percent increase in ticket sales this year from last year. But, he adds, there were about twice as many performances last year.
“When you consider how many events people had to choose from compared to last year and how many tickets were brought, you see this is actually a bad year for festivals,” he points out. “Due to the wide range of choices and the economic and political situation, we noticed people were selective in their purchasing.” Some shows have sold out, says Hussein, while others were barely attended. That may not be surprising given that this year only 57,000 tickets were sold at the three largest festivals (Byblos, Baalbeck and Beitedine) compared to last year’s 104,000.
Trad points out that festivals were overlapping this summer, as most organizers wanted to finish before Ramadan, which forced people to pick between concerts.
Paying for playing
All organizers interviewed said that their budget comes from three sources: sponsors, ticket sales and the Ministry of Tourism’s aid. According to Chahine, 70 percent of the Beiteddine Festival’s budget comes from ticket sales, 29 percent from sponsors and 1 percent from the tourism ministry. Baalbek Festival’s main support comes from sponsors and partners, says Trad, adding that the cost of sponsorship spots start at $10,000 and can vary depending on whether the sponsor wants to be a partner, or sponsor only one performance. Lakis believes festivals have limited profitability and are done for more cultural value than monetary gain. She adds that after paying the numerous expenses, whatever festival profits exist are largely reinvested into planning the next year’s event.
To be eligible for ministry support, festival directors must apply to the Ministry of Tourism, which then decides the amount, explains Michel Habis, advisor to the Minister of Tourism. He adds that depending on the location, how well established the festival is and the caliber of performers, support can range between $2,333 for smaller events to $332,000 for highly reputable showcases. Habis says the ministry aims to support all festivals due to their touristic value, but that it would not be fair to give all festivals the same amount.
The tourism ministry’s aid is consistent but late, agree Lakis and Chahine. Chahine explains that each year, they take loans from banks to cover for the delay in the government’s support, and that banks are used to this and know the support will eventually arrive, albeit some two years post-dated. Habis says he is aware of the delay and the loans the festival directors take, but says the issue lies with the Ministry of Finance, as the tourism ministry signs their support of approval at the right time and hands it over to them, after which delays are beyond their control.
The festival season is almost over, and as festival goers contemplate their favorite performers of the season, fair directors are busy balancing their books and wondering what talent they might be able to bring in next year. The available roster for 2013 may, however, have more to do with the geo-political situation swirling around Lebanon than the prestige of the event or the amount they can offer for artists to come, as the performers’ need, before anything else, a crowd to play for.