The vitality of Lebanon’s economy is intrinsically linked to the annual influx of tourists laden with their foreign coin. It is little surprise then that the vagaries of this temperamental sector play a large role in determining the national mood. And yet while income from the tourism trade roughly constitutes a fifth to a third of the whole economy, depending on how you calculate it, the finance ministry’s 2012 budget proposal allocates the Ministry of Tourism’s $18.5 million in funding, one of the lowest within the government.
“Our budget is a catastrophe,” remarked Michel Habis, advisor to the Minister of Tourism Fadi Abboud.
There is also no coherent strategy for the sector in Lebanon. There are ideas, proposals and plans, but most have been swamped in the miasma of cabinet and parliamentary debates, and thus never see the light of day.
“The Ministry of Tourism is trying to apply a strategy but first you need political stability before any strategy can be implemented and there is no stability in Lebanon,” complains Paul Ariss, president of the Syndicate of Owners of Restaurants, Cafes, Nightclubs and Pastries. Indeed for years the ministry has been touting Lebanon as a high-end tourism destination. Yet when Arab Gulf countries issued travel warnings for Lebanon over concerns related to the ongoing crisis in Syria, Abboud began talking about having Egyptians come to Lebanon for $500, flight and hotel included.
Opening the skies
The unpredictability of Lebanese stability is but one hurdle towards getting a comprehensive tourism plan through Lebanon’s notoriously turgid political process. It may well be beyond the scope of the ministry but one policy Abboud is pursuing with vigor is to attract the low-cost budget airlines to Lebanon; a strategy that has him on a collision course with the government-owned national carrier, Middle East Airlines (MEA), and its allies in the cabinet.
“If we significantly reduce the cost of travel we can boost the numbers by 50 percent. The country will profit so much more,” says Habis. Last month the Emirati-based Arabian Business published an interview with Abboud stating that the ministry was in talks with European low cost carriers Monarch Airlines, easyJet and Ryanair, and the minister accused the Lebanese Civil Aviation Authority of not allowing the airlines to land without first being given extra access to their markets.
“I have a complete plan that I want to introduce low-cost flights and chartered flights,” said Abboud to the news outlet. “The hotels are ready to give special prices. I don't want to reinvent the wheel. I want to do what Dubai did a few years ago when they had a problem, or what Egypt or Tunisia is doing now. You know you can spend a whole week in Tunisia now for $400 in a hotel plus the ticket.”
Lebanon signed up to the open skies policy in 2000 and fully implemented it in 2002, which opened up the market to unrestricted competition from other airlines. However, MEA never fully accepted the agreement and now with Ghazi Aridi, the minister of transportation and public works, firmly ensconced in their corner the country is retreating from this liberalization policy. “Airlines that are already servicing Beirut are requesting flights but Minister Aridi and MEA are rejecting these and this is what is killing the market,” says Hamdi Chaouk, former director general of Civil Aviation complains. “This comes specifically from the Ministry of Transport and Public Works which is trying to protect MEA.”
Other tourist hotspots in the region such as Israel and Turkey already have frequent flights from around Europe on budget airlines and as such are, in general, much more affordable tourist destinations.
“Today if you want to buy a ticket from London to Beirut it could cost close to a $1000 whereas the same ticket to Tel Aviv could be closer to $500,” says Habis.
Prices warding off newcomers
However, attracting budget tourists to Lebanon may seem counter intuitive considering the fact that a beer in Beirut costs as much as it does in London, and it is a struggle to get a good meal for under $20 a head. However, while acknowledging that Lebanon is an expensive destination for backpackers, Habis argues that if the flights are affordable, backpackers could be a big boost for the outlying areas such as Tripoli, Sour and the Bekaa where the cost of accommodation, food and entertainment is considerably less than in the capital.
The inexorable rise in prices is having a large affect on another potential tourism market and that is the community of Lebanese expatriates living abroad. In early July at a conference in Beirut held specifically for this community, the Minister of Tourism failed to turn up to a discussion on the policy of the Lebanese government to improve and increase tourism of Lebanese immigrants, eliciting more than a little bit of ire from the attendees.
“The Lebanese living abroad should be the permanent and continuous tourist to Lebanon,” said Nassib Fawaz, president of the Lebanese International Business Council speaking on the sidelines of the conference. “We want to be the tourists in Lebanon but the cost is so high. The middle classes are getting priced out of their homeland.”
Ripe new traveler markets
Habis says there are expanding markets that Lebanon is failing to tap into. Russia and Turkey are two countries within a four-hours flight where the traveler market is expanding considerably. “The Russians are becoming big, big travelers and we are not attracting enough of them because we only have two flights a week. They are all going to Cyprus but we need more flights,” say Habis.
In order to brand and promote Lebanon, Pierre Achkar, president of the Lebanese Hotel Association, argues it is necessary to target specific market segments and to communicate with captive markets in their own language. “We need to have close cooperation and a coherent strategy with foreign travel agents, for example in Turkey,” he says. The problem is that the Ministry of Tourism has virtually no budget to do this. The Council of Ministers recently agreed, however, to create a ‘promotion board’ headed by Minister Abboud, who will be joined by a number of concerned actors including the head of the central bank, the chairman of MEA and the head of the Federation of Tourism Syndicates. While the board will “brainstorm ideas,” according to Habis, on how to develop tourism in Lebanon, he claims it will primarily focus on raising funds for the promotion and branding of Lebanon abroad. In developing this brand Habis says the ministry is keen to engage with niche profiles of tourists, such as those interested in environmental and heritage tourism. However, Joseph Haddad, founding member and secretary of the Association for the Protection of Lebanese Heritage, argues that Lebanon is failing miserably to protect both its heritage and its environment. “The government right now views tourism only from the point of restaurants and hotels and nightlife but they are too short sighted to look at long term solutions such as preserving architecture or archeological sights,” he says. “This builds long-term tourism markets. They are just trying to pursue fast revenue. It is a typical Lebanese mentality.”
Lebanon’s Minister of Tourism does not pack the punch in the cabinet commensurate to the value of his sector, but Fadi Abboud is no shrinking violet. It is fair to say nobody is holding his breath for a comprehensive tourism strategy getting passed anytime soon. However, Abboud’s success or failure of opening the gates to budget airlines servicing more routes more frequently to Beirut will be a big determining factor in his ability to inject a fresh lease of life into the tourism sector in Lebanon.