The rising temperatures in Beirut signify a rapidly approaching summer, typically a peak tourism season in Lebanon and one that five star hoteliers in the country are eagerly anticipating. Tourism in Lebanon has been slowly getting back on its feet over the past four years—thanks to a diversification of markets that included European and South American visitors to the country—but hospitality stakeholders expect 2019 to be the best in terms of visitor numbers to Lebanon since 2010.
The reason for this unabashed optimism largely lies in the Gulf, specifically in the lifting of the travel advisory against Lebanon by Saudi Arabia in late February. Saudi nationals had been warned against travel to Lebanon for almost seven years—although the advisory was briefly lifted in 2017 only to be reinstated following Prime Minister Hariri’s retracted resignation—and over that period there was an almost consistent decrease of visitors from Saudi Arabia to Lebanon.
Lebanon’s five star hoteliers are hoping the lifting of the travel advisory means the tide has changed and GCC nationals will be flocking back to Lebanon this summer in the same volume they did pre-2012.
Following the lifting of the travel advisory, some hotels, such as the Phoenicia Hotel, say they felt an almost immediate positive impact on their occupancy rates, according to Tracey Bolton, its cluster director of sales and marketing.
Others say the real upshot of the lifting of the travel advisory manifested a bit later in the year. “Definitely, the number of visitors from the Gulf—and specifically from KSA—has increased so far in the year,” says Gilbert Zeait, general manager of Gefinor Rotana. “The effect of the lifting of travel restrictions was felt to some extent when it first occurred in February, but we can talk of a significant impact to tourism in mid-April when there were school holidays in KSA.” Speaking for the Four Seasons, its regional vice president and general manager Ramy Sayess says 2019 has been a positive year so far, and April 2019 was the best performing month since the hotel opened in 2010.
While the holy month of Ramadan is typically a slow one for tourism from the GCC countries, early indicators—interviews for this article were conducted in mid-May—suggest that Eid el-Fitr, this year falling in the first week of June, is going to be a busy period for Lebanon’s five star hotels. Nadia Madi, director of sales and marketing at Kempinski Summerland Hotel & Resort, says the property is fully booked starting from Eid and for the remainder of June with mainly Lebanese expats, and GCC and European nationals.
Bolton says all 72 rooms in Phoenicia’s sister property, Le Vendome, are already fully booked for the Eid period, and she expects Phoenicia to be fully booked as well for the same period by the time Eid is celebrated in June. She explains that their royal and presidential suites—favored by the Saudi nationals who were visiting Lebanon before the travel advisory—are being frequently booked again. “We’ve had support from the KSA market in the past five years—we’ve been lucky that way—but it hasn’t been from the big spenders, so now the average rate is intrinsically increasing again because they have started to come back and book these big suites,” Bolton says.
Zeait says Gefinor Rotana is at 50 percent occupancy for June—already an increase when compared to the same period in 2018—but explains that GCC nationals are usually last-minute bookers, and so he expects June occupancy to increase substantially during the last week of Ramadan. Zeait also mentions that the property’s suites and two to three bedroom apartments—which are part of the hotel and serviced as regular rooms—are an advantage in attracting Saudi tourists, who tend to travel in large groups.
Will they or won’t they?
Now that the Saudis can visit Lebanon freely again, the question is: Will they want to? Hoteliers interviewed generally believe that they do. Although Saudi nationals have likely developed other preferred travel destinations during their almost seven-year absence from Lebanon, hoteliers are hoping that there is truth in the expression that absence makes the heart grow fonder. Madi says Lebanon is still viewed as the “ultimate summer destination among its neighboring countries,” while Sayess explains that, based on his conversations with Saudi nationals, “they love Lebanon, and they miss Lebanon, and so for them to be able to come back, it’s like finding their first love.”
In a more pragmatic manner, Bolton explains that many Saudi nationals visited Turkey when they were unable to come to Lebanon, and now that relations between Saudi and Turkey are strained, Lebanon can reap the benefits—especially since they had not been able to visit Lebanon for a while, so it feels like a new destination to them.
The younger generation of Saudis—who have grown up travelling to the likes of London, Dubai, and even Istanbul—might conceivably pass on visiting Lebanon, but here again hotel operators are optimistic. “They will of course want to come to Lebanon because the feedback they hear about the country from those who have been here is always positive,” says Zeait. “I used to live in Saudi, and am talking from my personal experience. For those in their early 20s, and even if they had never visited Lebanon, they see it as a place where they can have fun.”
Put in the work
Although the perception is that Saudi nationals are eager to revisit Lebanon, the reality is that the global tourism market has become very competitive, and in order for Lebanon to grab its piece of that pie—and attract GCC and other international business—it has to put in the effort. “It needs a push from the government to market the destination Lebanon and reposition it, targeted at the countries which have not supported Lebanon as much in the recent past,” explains Bolton. “We work very closely with the Ministry of Tourism, and we go to a lot of trade shows to represent Lebanon—and all it has to offer in terms of history and culture—as a destination.”
Over the past three years, tourism stakeholders have indeed been working to promote Lebanon through a combined effort from the Ministry of Tourism and individual hospitality establishments, according to Sayess. In the then-absence of a steady GCC market, the European market was better developed by these stakeholders, as was the South American market with a focus on the Lebanese diaspora. This was achieved through a variety of efforts including participation in international trade shows marketing Lebanon as a destination and the organization of Visit Lebanon—the second edition of which took place at the end of May—a B2B trade show that invites international travel and tourism agencies and introduces them to all the tourism that could be done in Lebanon.
Today, both the European and the South American tourism markets are gradually growing, and so the expected boost from the Saudi market will serve to drive visitor numbers to Lebanon even higher. This is leading several tourism stakeholders to say that summer 2019 is likely to break tourism figures records, with Sayess saying his only wish is that the works in the airport will finish in time to accommodate the large number of expected visitors. While Eid el-Fitr is predicted to set the season off on the right foot, the belief is that Eid el-Adha (in mid-August) will be when visitor numbers will flow until the end of the summer season in mid-September, provided there are no unexpected negative surprises. Stay tuned.