In 2010, the travel and tourism sector represented 22 percent of Lebanon’s gross domestic product, according to tourism minister Fadi Abboud, with the country witnessing an increase in tourist arrivals of approximately 17.2 percent on the previous year. While 2011 began with high hopes for tourism, regional unrest and internal turmoil has quickly unraveled that spirit of optimism and confidence. As one Arab regime after another came tumbling down or brutally clung to power, and as the Lebanese government collapsed and pushed the nation yet again into a period of uncertainty, bleak predictions for the tourism sector began to circulate.
In January 2011 the first hit came when STR Global announced that hotel occupancy rates in Beirut had hit 41.6 percent, a 20.9 percent drop on 2010 rates. Drops in tourist arrivals and airport traffic further fueled fears, along with the kidnapping of seven Estonians in an isolated incident in the Bekaa valley and stern travel warnings released by the United States, Bahrain and Saudi Arabia. As unrest continues to boil in Libya, Yemen, Bahrain and now neighboring Syria, the question remains as to what type of summer tourism Lebanon can realistically expect.
Of all the events in the region, it is the unrest in Syria that will affect Lebanon’s tourism industry the most. Many Western tour operators group Lebanon and Syria together as part of a Middle Eastern package; if travel to Syria is impossible then the Lebanese leg of the tour in most cases is also dropped. Western tourists also have a tendency to group countries in the Middle East together conceptually and may not be willing to vacation anywhere in the vicinity of what they perceive to be a ‘hot zone.’
Regionally, land travel to Lebanon through Syria will be cut off, which will lead to a decrease in tourists coming by road, particularly from Jordan and Iran. Last year, Jordanians were the top nationality to visit Lebanon. According to Pierre Achkar, president of the Federation for Tourism and the Hotel Association in Lebanon, most of these tourists were middle-class Jordanians arriving by car. If the security situation in Syria continues to deteriorate during the summer, then the number of Jordanian tourists will inevitably fall off compared to previous years. The number of weekend visitors from Syria will also come to a standstill.
Given the political complexities facing Egypt, the 60,000 Egyptian tourists that came to Lebanon last year may also be deterred. As for the Gulf tourists, Achkar predicts that they will continue to be hesitant, “but the moment we have a government in Lebanon — any government — they will comeback,” he said.
Although the figures released since the beginning of the year have been consistently negative, Director General of the Ministry of Tourism Nada Sardouk said, “Lebanon has seen a small drop compared to other countries in the region.” She also suggested that there is a need to place these numbers into perspective.
In an interview with Executive, Sardouk pointed out that while the number of tourists arriving in Lebanon in the first quarter of 2011(340,700) dropped by 13.36 percent compared to the first quarter of 2010 (393,200), the number arriving this year is still significantly higher than it was during the first quarter of 2009 (297,700), which at the time was considered to be a record year for Lebanese tourism.
The same logic can be applied to Rafiq Hariri International Airport figures, which registered airport passengers (arrivals, departures and transits) of 1.02 million for the first quarter of 2011, 1.07 million for the first quarter of 2010 and just 886,700 for the first quarter of 2009. While there has thus far been a year-on-year decrease of 4.5 percent in airport passengers, 2011 still reflects a significant increase over the last two few years.
While regional circumstances and internal instability have caused a slump, figures could be considerably worse than they have been thus far, given the serious challenges facing the country and the region. There is a definite slowdown in the growth of the tourism sector, but there are also constructive forces that are tempering the hit. One of these appears to be investment in the hospitality sector.
Private sector investors are largely adopting a positive stance; summer 2011 will see the opening of a slew of new restaurants, nightclubs, pubs and even an extreme sports theme park. Some of the biggest names in hospitality will be re-opening with new indoor and outdoor spaces, and an enticing set of trade shows, cultural performances and concerts scheduled.
Massive investments are also underway; the Phoenicia InterContinental Hotel invested $20 million for its 50th anniversary renovations, including re-designing its Eau De Vie and Mosaic restaurants, the Cascade tea lounge and opening the Whisky Mist nightclub; Edde Sands invested a reported $1.5 million in refurbishing its rooftop restaurant, an Italian seafood restaurant in the Byblos port and the first Beirut branch of the eCafe in the historic district of Sursock; Movenpick renovated its rooms and is opening a fusion ‘chill-out’ lounge, and Le Gray’s investments included a new Asian restaurant, conference facilities, additional suites, a new roof terrace lounge and a second bar targeting the young, cosmopolitan crowd.
Beyond the luxury hotel chains in Beirut, food and beverage concept creation and management company Add Mind, which manages trendy nightspots such as White, Rococo and Gem, will also be investing heavily in the summer. The company has scheduled openings for five new venues between May and June, from Batroun to Beirut to Damour. “No one knows what can happen in Lebanon but hopefully we will have a good summer,” said Add Mind Chief Executive Officer Tony Haber. “If nothing happens internally, this could be one of our best summers ever.”
Virgin Megastore Sales Director Abdo Husseiny, who is responsible for ticketing, also expressed high expectations for 2011, which he anticipates will see better sales than 2009. “We are expecting the best summer so far,” he said, citing projections of between $10 million and $12 million in ticket sales revenue. “We are planning even more events this summer than we did in 2009 and 2010,” he added. Who will enjoy the new facilities and events, however, is another question entirely, as convincing Western tourists to venture to the Middle East will be difficult, while Arab tourists will be both wary of regional travel and largely returning home for the full month of August, as Ramadan this year will fall in the middle of the busiest part of the summer.
Lebanese tourists drive the market
In reality, the notion that more than 1.5 million foreign tourists per year have been driving the tourism and hospitality sector in Lebanon is only partially true. Data gathered by the Ministry of Tourism only classifies visitors according to the passport they use to enter the country, which means that many diaspora Lebanese returning as tourists for the summer are not counted in the figures.
“Things aren’t looking good for non-Lebanese tourists this summer, but we can still expect a large number of Lebanese expats,” said Nassib Ghobril, head economist of Byblos Bank. “We should also see decent spending levels from this group, as they are the ones who truly move the tourism sector; they are the biggest group in spending. Maybe hotels will suffer, but that’s it,” he said.
Ghobril’s logic perhaps explains the heavy investments hotels are making to revamp or add venues that can benefit from local and summer expat crowds, and not just on foreign tourists occupying rooms. While many hotels may see a drop, it could well be a smaller one than expected given that 2010 Ministry of Tourism statistics indicate that the top nationality staying in hotels and furnished apartments were Lebanese.
Lebanese nationals accounted for 19.5 percent of the total number of clients for 2010, followed most closely by Saudi nationals, (12.3percent), Jordanians (7.1 percent), Iraqis (6.5 percent) and Syrians (5.5percent).
In the food and beverage sector, Haber confirmed that “70 percent of ourbusiness depends on local Lebanese, and nearly 30 percent depends on Lebanese expats visiting Lebanon.” Husseiny echoed similar expectations regarding entertainment sales, counting on foreign tourists to make up only about 5 percent of total ticket sales, with the vast majority allocated between local Lebanese (70 percent) and expatriates (25 percent).“The Lebanese are used to ups and downs, even the ones who are coming to visit from abroad,” Husseiny said. “They came when things were happening that were far worse than what we are experiencing now; they will come again this year.”
According to Nizar Khoury, head of the commercial department for Middle East Airlines, as of today, overall flights for the summer into Lebanon show no growth, but are equivalent to last year’s figures. For summer bookings, however, flights coming in from the region and the Gulf in particular are less full than they were last year, showing what Khoury referred to as “a substantial decrease,” while summer reservations on European routes have picked up, showing an estimated 5 percent increase from last year.
Given Western wariness toward the region at present, this pickup is likely due to an increase in the number of expatriates visiting Lebanon, not Western tourists. “Lebanon will fare better than other countries in the region in terms of tourism coming from abroad due to our expats,”Ghobril said. “Lebanon has the advantage of having expats who return frequently for a holiday, and Lebanese expats are going to float this season.”
Looking closer to home
While the tourism sector in Lebanon for the last several years has been driven by high-spending tourists, especially those from the Gulf, Lebanese Economic Association Founder and President Jad Chaaban suggested that it is time for a change in direction.
“This model drove growth for the last few years but this type of tourism was hit hard by the financial crisis and now the regional situation,” he said. “This model has proven too risky because it focuses on only one type of tourist, and I think now we can see that it’s time to diversify.”
According to Chaaban, the focus on big spenders from the Gulf led to unsustainable growth centering on investment in Greater Beirut without the creation of a significant number of jobs throughout the country. Leveraging other assets to appeal to different types of tourists is part of a diversification strategy that Chaaban suggests to mitigate risks, beginning with tapping the local population.
“Internal tourism is a huge, growing market,” Chaaban said. Although internal tourism is something that remains off the radar for the Ministry of Tourism, he explained that Lebanese in general enjoy day or weekend trips and would do so more often if more comfortable and affordable facilities were available for overnight stays. “Due to the increased price of housing, not all Lebanese families have a second residence anymore and many want to escape the city for a weekend to relax and enjoy a change in scenery,” he said.
Lebanese still constitute the largest numbers staying in hotels and chalets, and according to Ghobril, “these are not just expats, but Lebanese residing here who decide to go for a local holiday outside of the city.” While there are no figures quantifying the economic effects of local tourism, Ghobril insisted that “local tourism is underestimated for the value it generates for the economy.”
The recently opened five-star boutique hotel Byblos Sur Mercan bear witness to the importance of internal Lebanese tourism. The hotel is expecting high summer occupancy rates this year between 60 and 85 percent, but estimates that 60 percent of its guests this summer will be a mix of local residents and Lebanese expatriates. “Locals come to Byblos as an escape away from the busy capital,” said Sales and Marketing Manager Mona Mounzer. Given the rate at which Byblos is evolving as a relaxing destination for boutique shopping, fine dining and cultural activities, a cosmopolitan local following is sure to emerge.
Developing internal tourism not only makes the country more attractive for its residents, but also creates a form of sustainable growth that promotes rural economic development by bringing more visitors to areas outside of Beirut. A fresh example of this model at work is in Batroun, which is preparing for a booming summer season. Local beach resort Bonita Bay is being fully renovated and upgraded with a new restaurant, primping itself to be a more upscale, trendy resort venue of the north. With a 700-person capacity,it is aiming to lure more visitors to the area. “We are going to be re-branding Bonita Bay with a new logo and mood, and we will be advertising it all over Lebanon,” said Operations Manager Shadi Ayoub.
Not far from the beach resort is another newcomer to Batroun, a spacious restaurant and event venue called Batrouniyat, which was fashioned from a historic home more than 300 years old. The restaurant relies on nearby villages to supply its organic ingredients and traditional Lebanese preserves, and in so doing directly supports many farmers in the caza, or local district.
“No one was supporting the growth of this area, so we decided to do something to help,” said manager Charbel Faour. The venue also occasionally doubles as an exhibition hall for local artists, in addition to being a charming restaurant decorated with traditional furniture, candles and mosaic tile floors. Locals told Executive that it has already reinvigorated the town in the six months since its opening last winter, and Faour confirmed that it brings in approximately 600 people per Sunday for brunch. “Today, 95 percent of our brunch customers come from outside the area of Batroun,” he said. “I even have customers who come from as far as Saida.”
In the south, the Rest House Tyre and Al Fanar Hotel in Tyre enjoy relatively high summer occupancy rates but cater primarily to local tourists, as well as international workers with the United Nations who are stationed near the border. In the Bekaa valley, the West Bekaa Country Club also provides primarily local Lebanese guests with a comfortable place to stay for the night. However, according to Chaaban, there is plenty of room for more hotels. “The Dhiafee program [a United States Agency for International Development project] set up a chain of ecotourism destinations in Lebanon to create an interesting network of places to visit on a circuit… where visitors can stay overnight in quaint cottages and bed and breakfasts,” he said. “This is a growing market with a lot of potential that should not be overlooked.”
Even Casino du Liban thrives on local tourism. Ninety percent of revenues for Casino Du Liban are estimated to come from gambling activities, and the majority of players come from all over Lebanon. Marketing Manager Lara Hafez estimated that locals account for 64 percent of players, 26 percent are regional visitors and the rest from various international destinations.
“I think that the majority of the 2 million tourists we saw last summer were of Lebanese origin,” said Chaaban. “Relying on wealthy expats and Arabs… is a short-sighted way of developing our tourism sector.”
While expats may conceal the drop in tourism this season, continuing to depend on them will not help the tourism sector to move toward its full potential in the future. To develop foreign tourism will require a strategy that caters to different types of visitors from all over the world. By diversifying the sources of tourism, the country will not only shield itself from risk, but also maximize long-term return.
Where have all the Arabs gone?
While Arab tourists accounted for 42 percent of last year’s foreign tourists, 2011 is due to see a drop in this number, with land travel via Syria compromised as overall regional security deteriorates. Joe Yacoub,Country Manager of international VAT refund operator Global Blue told Executive that “tourist expenditures in Lebanon are stagnant,” explaining that there should have been an increase compared to 2010.
“The unrest in some Middle Eastern countries did have a negative impact on the overall tourist spending,” he said, as residents of Arab countries outside of Lebanon represented 52 percent of the total spending in the first quarter of 2011. “The unrest in Syria… affected total in-store sales coming from Syrian tourists, while incidents near the border with Jordan are affecting incoming tourists from Jordan as well,” he said. According to Yacoub, there was an 18 percent decrease in Jordanian spending in the first quarter of2011.
Despite the fact that the greatest amount of tourist dollars spent in Lebanon came from Saudi Arabia (18 percent) and the United Arab Emirates (12 percent) during the first two months of 2011, according to Global Blue calculations, it is not clear how much of this spending is from Lebanese expatriates and how much is from foreign nationals, as calculations are based on the country of residence and not nationality.
“It is worth mentioning that Lebanese expatriates are considered tourists in relation to the VAT refund scheme,” Yacoub said, emphasizing that many refunds typically attributed to Europe, the Americas and Australia are actually for Lebanese expatriates. Regardless of whether the majority of spending from the Gulf is coming from Lebanese expatriates or foreign nationals, and in spite of the regional unrest, relying too heavily on tourists from the Gulf can no longer fully sustain Lebanon’s tourism economy, as travel trends suggest that Gulf travelers are exploring different destinations and traveling less frequently to Lebanon.
“We have taken Arab tourists for granted in Lebanon,” said Ghobril, who underlined that there is now more competition on the market for Arab tourist dollars from Europe, Turkey and East Asia, which recently launched an aggressive marketing campaign targeting Gulf countries. “We should not underestimate the competition outside the region,” he said. “Turkey has already benefited significantly from the situation in the Middle East.”
With more competition vying for wealthy Arab tourists and Ramadan due in the middle of the summer for the next several years, a new strategy for keeping the Lebanese tourism sector going strong is in order.Signs of a strategic shift are already visible in the hospitality sector,where, in anticipation of Ramadan breaking the season in half, hotels have been actively promoting Lebanon as a destination for leisure and business tocountries outside of the region.
“We are trying to replace the Gulf tourists who will not becoming during Ramadan with tourists from Turkey, Russia and Eastern Europe, as they are not as afraid to come to Lebanon as Europeans and Americans,” said Achkar, referring to the strategy of his own two hotels, the Printania and theMonroe Hotel.
Le Gray, on the other hand, is striving to recuperate the losses from Middle Eastern countries with a steady flow of European and American tourists throughout the month of Ramadan. This year, the hotel invested significantly in promoting Lebanon as a destination through international exhibitions and sales trips in the Middle East, Europe and the United States. “We are initiating strategies to highlight new angles to promote Lebanon as a destination, mainly through art and culture,” said Public Relations Manager Rita Saad.
Even Casino du Liban has begun looking further afield for foreign players. Often viewed as an indicator of high-end tourism, the casino is expecting a good season across all of its business units, with gaming rooms expected to work at full capacity, as well as its restaurants, entertainment venues and banqueting facilities. However, according to Hafez, it is looking to diversify beyond the Arab market to make up its share of international players, and is investing in a strategy to target players from neighboring countries like Greece and Cyprus, as well as Turkey and Russia, where recent casino closures have left players looking abroad for more exciting options.
China is also on the list of international target markets.“This market holds huge potential, with a rising interest of Chinese gamblers to come to the Middle East. But we still need a few more years to start witnessing a regular flow of clients from the Far East,” said Hafez.
The Ministry of Tourism has also been very active, participating in international fairs and exhibitions in Russia, Europe and Turkey in addition to the Arab world. In Europe, the Ministry of Tourism is targeting France, the United Kingdom, Germany, Spain and Italy, and has launched a new website for leisure tourism for the French market.
“The Ministry of Tourism is very interested in Europe, but different countries require a different approach,” said Serge Akl, director of the Tourism Office of Lebanon in Paris, France, which is Lebanon’s only tourism office abroad. Country-specific websites are set to follow the French site. “The last step will be the Americas, as these markets will be challenging to reach because there are so many negative images to change,” he said. Back in Beirut, the Ministry of Tourism is also working to develop relations with the Iranian embassy to support more visits from Iranians, who represented 80 percent of non-Arab Asian arrivals in the first quarter of 2011, mainly because of the Persian Noruz holiday. But as 75 percent of these tourists came by road through Syria, further travel plans may well be on hold until the dust of the uprising settles.
More to offer than “beach and booze”
As the market for tourism becomes more competitive worldwide, a well-rounded tourism development strategy for Lebanon will need to rely on promoting the country by focusing on the diversity that differentiate sit from other places around the globe. Marketing Lebanon as a destination for sea, ski and nightlife not only overlooks some of the country’s greatest assets to attract tourists, but also limits the scope of its attractiveness to visitors from the Arab world.
It is unlikely European or American tourists will journey to Lebanon specifically for these things, given that they have other options for sea, ski, and nightlife far closer to home, most likely at cheaper prices. WhileLebanon is a glamorous destination for luxury shopping and services, fine dining, gambling and nightlife, focusing only on these aspects of tourism limits the growth of the sector and the country’s ability to attract more tourists from all around the world. In a country that possesses five ancient UNESCO World Heritage sites and a biodiversity of more than 1,500 species of flowers, plants and trees in just a 10,400 square kilometer space, there is much more to the country than is currently being promoted.
“When looking at the Western market, the target is an educated tourist,” said Akl. “An intellectual person wants to visit Lebanon as a destination of discovery where they can experience something enriching — from history, nature and architecture to a vibrant scene of contemporary art, cinema and design… in addition to our state of the art dining and nightlife,” he said.“It’s about marketing l’art de vivre that Lebanon is famous for, together with its rich heritage and fun-loving, hospitable people.”
When Akl organizes press trips for the French media, he notes that basic sun and sea tourism interests very few. “They become interested when I begin showing them that Lebanon has something more unique and interesting to offer,” he said.
In a special Milan Design Week 2011 edition of Elle Decor Italia, Beirut received a 10-page section featuring the capital not only as a party town but also as a sophisticated cultural destination.
“This type of exposure changes European views aboutLebanon,” Akl said. “Expressing the post-civil war era through things like cinema, music and art shows that Lebanon has something pertinent and intelligent to say to the world, and people want to come and experience that.”
Cultural tourism can also be highly lucrative. From July 13 to 16 this summer, art collectors from all over the world will be congregating in Beirut to experience the city as a cultural destination when they come to visit the first edition of the Menasart Fair, the first international art fair to be completely dedicated to contemporary art from the Middle East, North Africa and Southeast Asia. In the event’s regular newsletter, fair manager Laure d’Hauteville announced on March 24 that “the present stable situation of Lebanon offers a stunning contrast with its surrounding environment.”
Ecotourism could also be an attractive resource for Lebanon, given its abundance of natural treasures — the Qadisha Valley, the Cedar Reserves, the Jeita Grotto, the Balaa sinkhole, and the entire stretch of the Lebanese Mountain Trail (LMT), to name a few.
“Ecotourism is gaining market share,” said Karim el-Jisr, founding member of the LMT, which opened in 2006. “Ecotourism can easily cater to up to 100,000 tourists per year provided that the sector is better organized and there is a commitment to nature conservation,” he said. Last year the LMT welcomed 30,000 visitors and this year it anticipates approximately 50,000 visitors despite regional turmoil, as “ecotourism is more flexible than conventional tourism,” he said.
The LMT also helps to sustain businesses in villages alongthe trail, providing a much-needed injection of economic activity to the ruralareas through which it passes.
“Ecotourism is undervalued in Lebanon,” said Hana Hibri, author of the book “A Million Steps”, which recounts her 30-day journey along the LMT in 2009. “There are many misconceptions about ecotourism. It’s not only for low-budget travelers and it’s not competing with traditional hotel tourism.If anything, it complements it,” she said. If hotels organized packages for travelers to end their hike with a rewarding spa weekend in luxurious five-star surroundings, Hibri felt there would be plenty of hikers that would gladly signup.
Adventure tourism that goes beyond hiking and into extreme sports is also a new niche for Lebanon to explore, given the country’s 300 days of sunshine and temperate climate for most of the year. In 2009 the three-day cross-country Lebanon H.O.G. Tour brought more than 300 Harley Davidson ridersfrom Europe, Australia, the United States, Jordan, Syria, the GCC and beyond, in what became the world’s largest official Harley Davidson tour. A cap on the number of riders the event could accept had to be applied for the following year, due to a lack of sufficient accommodation facilities across Lebanon.“These are people who are brain surgeons, doctors, business owners, architects, engineers, you name it. The profile of a Harley Davidson rider is a five-star client, so we need to take them somewhere where they can all be hosted comfortably,”said Marwan Tarraf, General Manager of Harley Davidson Lebanon.
Turning up the speed a notch, Gilbert Khoury of High On Wheels, the exclusive distributor for Ducati and other elite motor sport brands in Lebanon, is launching an extreme sports theme park near Dbayeh in July. As Lebanon’s first such attraction, the park will offer a vast range of pulse-raising pursuits for an equally broad base of clients. “This park willmost definitely attract tourists from the region and Europe,” said Khoury, who is banking on Lebanon’s temperate year-round climate to attract visitors from more extreme climatic zones who want to enjoy exciting outdoor sports.
Taking care of business
In addition to being a diverse vacation destination, Lebanon also has potential as a destination for corporate travel. Being a gateway to the Middle East, a cultural bridge, and place where diversity of religion, thought and language coexist, Lebanon is a place where people from European and Eastern cultures can feel at ease, and for regional or international companies this accessibility is a great asset.
“MICE [Meetings, Incentives, Conventions, Exhibitions] tourism is very important for the tourism sector and the national economy,” confirmed Sardouk. “MICE provides jobs by creating a chain of value for different sectors, including agriculture, industry, transportation and hospitality,” she said. “The participants in the meetings, exhibitions and trade shows can also discover the country, and we see about 80 percent of them expressing a desire to come back for pure tourism.”
On the 2011 World Economic Forum Travel and Tourism Competitiveness Index (TTCI), Lebanon ranked third out of 139 countries globally for the frequency of business travelers who extend their trips. “High occupancy rates in Beirut are highly correlated to business travel for regional corporate meetings,” said Achkar.
For hotels, MICE also provides another revenue stream that helps to diversify their risk across other activities. The Phoenicia InterContinental has begun to rely more heavily on MICE, as this sector has recently begun to show significant growth. MICE has been the hotel’s strongest growth market for the past two years as a result of heavy collaboration with the Ministry of Tourism and local tour operators.
“We have seen high demand not only from Arab and neighboring Near East countries, but also strong demand from Turkey, Europe and even Latin America,” said Phoenicia Director of Sales and Marketing Daniel Weihrauch. “The second half of 2011 also looks very encouraging, with multinational companies booking regional events and global conferences with us,” he said.
Despite the challenges of 2011, MICE tourism in Lebanon still appears to be going strong. HORECA, a four-day international trade show for the hospitality and food service industry which took place in Beirut this spring was the most successful edition to date. “It’s confusing because this runs contrary to the overall situation in the country and the region,” said Joumana Damous Saleme, managing director of Hospitality Services, the company that organized the show. “We had last minute cancellations from Egypt and Iran, but the rest of our international exhibitors attended,” she said. HORECA attracted more than 25,000 visitors and 350 exhibitors, an increase over last year of 10 percent and 15 percent, respectively.
International exhibition and conference organizer IFP remains optimistic about its summer trade shows. “I can say we are looking at a potential of 30 percent growth in revenues, maybe more if things in the region settle down soon,” said IFP Chairman Albert Aoun.
The popular trade show for yachts, Beirut Boat 2011, taking place this month, has already attracted more than 120 participants, among them the biggest names in the marine industry, making the show 30 percent larger than 2010. Furthermore, the upcoming real estate show in late May and Early June at BIEL, “Project Lebanon 2011” will be 25 percent larger than last year, withmore exhibitors and exhibition space. In addition to “Energy Lebanon,” a regional electricity trade show that will run from May 31 to June 3, IFP is also adding a new summer show, Outdoor Lebanon 2011, to its busy event schedule from June 22 to 26. The show will promote outdoor sport equipment for all types of activities, such as hunting, hiking, sea sports, ATV-riding and more. “We expect this event to be a success,” said Aoun. “We are expecting growth in this year’s shows.”
Based on 2010 figures, IFP expects summer shows to attract 3,000 to 4,000 international visitors. “We have to keep in mind that business visitors and high income tourists make a good impact on the country’s tourism and hospitality sector,” he added.
Message in a bottleneck
With much of the Middle East in the throes of revolution and Lebanon still trying to form a government, facing the indictments from the Special Tribunal for Lebanon and still recovering from the 2006 July War, tourism represents far more than an economic activity.
“We need to break the perception of Lebanon as a location of terrorism,” said Akl, pointing to the value of tourism as a form of public relations for a small country with what one could call a fairly negative world image. When measuring the tourism economy in Lebanon, the value of an individual tourist goes far beyond the number of dollars spent in the country. When that tourist goes back home and speaks positively about Lebanon, it creates a type of PR that the Lebanese are highly familiar with: word of mouth.
“Lebanon has been using tourism as a major international PR tool for a while now, but the brand image [that was] built was interrupted several times by political instability, which led to economic instability,” said KatiaYasmine, managing director of regional PR agency TRACCS.
Unfortunately, on the 2011 World Economic Forum Travel and Tourism Competiveness Index, although Lebanon ranked third in the region for human, natural and cultural resources, it ranked 113 out of 139 countries globally for how well the country manages marketing and branding.
Before worrying about branding, however, the country has greater issues to deal with. The Ministry of Tourism admitted last year that Lebanon is not prepared in terms of infrastructure — namely water, energy and transportation — to support more than 15 to 20 percent growth in tourism. “In the strategy of [caretaker] Minister Fadi Abboud over the last year the focus has been to look at how we can spread the number of tourists over the year and over the country,” said Sardouk. “More growth could be supported in the country if this happens,” she said. For such alternatives to work, however, better signage, roads, maps and accommodation facilities in other cities outside the capitalare required.
In 2011, the World Economic Forum concluded that “ground transport infrastructure should be further developed, and safety and security issues must be addressed,” in order for Lebanon to truly become more competitive. Even when the country experiences a period of relative stability, however, the media buzz that thrives on political propaganda and negative forecasting does not help to advertise Lebanon as a destination for tourism. Once stability and safety are relatively secure, this has to be proactively communicated.
“The basic starting point is security and stability,” said Ghobril. “People don’t care about politics; they care about safety.”