Home Levant Return of the tourist

Return of the tourist

The Lebanese allure is back, drawing travelers from far and wide

by Executive Staff

Blonde girls in hiking boots and backpacks sightsee downtown. Men in clean white dishdashas walk on the corniche at sunset. Lost Americans haggle unsuccessfully with taxi drivers in Hamra. All signal that the tourists are back.

For the first time in four years, Lebanon has experienced an increase in winter tourism. The Ministry of Tourism says the first few months of the year saw a 20 percent rise in tourism from last year.

Political and security stability have been major factors, but credit can also go to local tour companies who have aggressively marketed their country. A string of favorable articles in Western publications promoting Lebanon as a good travel destination have helped. Lebanese ex-pats and tourists themselves can be credited with spreading the word about the country.

“My favorite thing I did in Lebanon was skiing in Faraya on a clear, sunny day,” says Hakon Fossmark, a 27-year-old student from Norway.

Fossmark has been using Beirut as a base to travel throughout the rest of the Middle East. He brushes off the travel warnings the US and European countries have issued about Lebanon.

“Certainly things can happen here, but it seems safer to walk around here than in Oslo,” Fossmark says.

Calm and sensible wins the day

It is this sense of stability that Lebanon’s tourism sector is counting on to make this summer a successful year for foreign arrivals. Lebanon’s Ministry of Tourism predicts 2 million tourists will come to Lebanon this summer.

“In 2005, tourism was dropping because of the assassinations and Lebanon’s security situation,” says Nada Sardouk Ghandour, general director of Lebanon’s Ministry of Tourism. “Tourism then increased after the election of the president. This past February, we had 98,000 tourists. We haven’t seen that in 20 years.”

Officials from the ministry have attended travel fairs and hosted conferences throughout Europe and the Middle East, including Iraq, to encourage tourists to visit Lebanon. Travel agencies are giddy.

“We’re getting more requests every month,” says Marwa Rizk Jaber, CEO of Beirut-based travel agency U Travel Middle East. “We had a lot of bookings for the ski season this year and most of the hotels in the ski resorts were fully booked during the months of January and February.”

This high demand has led to 90 percent occupancy rates at Lebanon’s 5-star hotels since the beginning of the year as well as an expansion of Middle East Airlines’ routes.

The Beirut-based travel agency Wild Discovery says inquiries about tourism in Lebanon are up 40 percent from last year. The agency is also sees the increased tourism levels in Syria as a complement to that in Lebanon.

“Lebanon is an excellent door to neighboring countries Syria and Jordan,” says Karim Saade of the Saade Group, which runs Wild Discovery. “Foreigners will come for several weeks and visit all three countries.”

Lebanon’s rural south and Bekaa have also seen an increase in visitor numbers. Carlos Khachan, founder of Club Grappe, says this is the first year he will take groups to South Lebanon to see wine-making monasteries and visit the Karam winery in Jezzine. His group has offered tours of the Bekaa’s vineyards and wineries in the Bekaa Valley since 2002.

“All of the diaspora are coming back for the elections, and they’re staying for the summer,” Khachan says. “If we work with them, it will be a good opportunity to promote Lebanon. Tourism is increasing because the political situation is getting better.”

“We are one of the pioneers of Arab alternative music. This atmosphere is very different from other places in the Middle East”

The Arab alternative

This improvement has brought what nightclub owners and others say is an influx of cultural tourists, who come to experience Beirut’s alternative music scene.

“We [are]one of the pioneers of Arab alternative music,” says Jad Soueid, a Beirut-based DJ. “This atmosphere is very different from other places in the Middle East, where there are restrictions on opening hours and alcohol. If they [the Israelis] leave us alone, we’ll have a good year.”

But Saade of Wild Discovery says it’s not just the threat of war with Israel and political instability that keeps the tourism sector in Lebanon from seeing its full potential.

“We can do better,” he says, suggesting that the Lebanese government do more to promote the country abroad, and reopen the National Council of Tourism, which has been closed for many years. He also thinks Lebanon should have more three-star hotels.

“Most of the new hotels here are five-star,” Saade says. “Because of this, Europeans find it too expensive, and that’s why they’re going to Syria more. We have an excellent brand as a country. We need to do more to promote it.”

Support our fight for economic liberty &
the freedom of the entrepreneurial mind

Executive Staff


View all posts by

You may also like