Various stakeholders—from the current and previous ministers of tourism and heads of hospitality-related syndicates to restaurant operators and local retail business owners—have all said that tourism was a main driver of the Lebanese economy. Speaking at a March conference on tourism entitled “Towards Sustainable Tourism,” Prime Minister Hariri said he believed that the total contribution of tourism to GDP could eventually reach 50 percent—including both direct and indirect tourism—noting that several sectors benefit from tourism and it should therefore be given more attention by the government.
It is high time that the government puts its money where its mouth is when it comes to tourism. While it is true that tourism has been a pillar of the Lebanese economy in politically stable years—tourism directly contributed 14 percent of GDP in 2003 and just under 11 percent in 2010, according to the World Travel and Tourism Council—this has not been thanks to a national effort to promote the sector in Lebanon. Stakeholders and the government say tourism is important to the economy, but, if they truly believe that, then they should show it: first, by preserving what is left of Lebanon’s natural beauty and developing those areas’ tourism potential, and second, by having a comprehensive and smart marketing strategy, backed by the political will to achieve it.
Executive’s team toured through Lebanon last month in search of the country’s most tourist-attractive freshwater bodies. Imagine our frustration upon seeing that what was not managed by a conservation or natural reserve committee was, at best, neglected—barely heard of and hard to find—and, at worst, littered with trash and waste. The levels of pollution in some of Lebanon’s rivers and lakes has serious implications for our health, but even if we look at it solely from the angle of promoting tourism, visitors to these natural sites will not enjoy them if they come surrounded by trash and with plastic bags and plates floating in the water.
Eight of the rivers in Lebanon that are not part of a reserve or conservation are “nature sites” under the protection of the Ministry of Environment, including the Ibrahim River—parts of which Executive saw littered. Another four of these freshwater bodies that are not part of a reserve or conservation were labeled as “sites of natural importance in need of protection” under the Ministry of Environment’s Lebanon’s Natural Biodiversity Strategy and Action Plan. Regulations to protect these natural sites already exist under Lebanese law, what is needed is their enforcement. This can be achieved by having municipal police present on these sites to monitor visitors’ behavior and speak to violators to make them understand that they are ruining the beauty of these sites for themselves and others.
If this awareness building approach does not work, then preventing people from bringing in food and drinks outside of designated areas around freshwater bodies could be the only solution. When Jabal Moussa Reserve (JMR) first took over management of Chouwen River in 2015, they found that it was common for people to trek downhill to barbecue by the river and leave their trash lying on its banks when they left. JMR management decided to forbid food and drinks around Chouwen, and while they were met with opposition at first, today people are happy to just enjoy the walk and the beauty of the river and take their barbecuing elsewhere when done. Lebanon’s natural sites deserve to be protected before it is too late and we lose them to trash.
Once these sites—and many other sites of natural beauty that exist in Lebanon—are protected from pollution and littering, it would be time to set in place a strategy to develop and promote them for tourism. This strategy has to include all stakeholders, starting with the Ministry of Tourism and tourism syndicates as the overarching bodies, but also including the municipalities where these sites are located, and the ministries of interior, economy, environment, and transport. All of these entities have to come together to see that these sites are well-maintained, accessible, have proper tourism infrastructure, and are well-promoted.
Proper promotion requires stakeholders to assess previous tourism strategies and to learn from mistakes past. It also needs a sizable budget for the tourism ministry that would allow it to market Lebanon in tourism exhibitions and to open new market channels—if used smartly, with an emphasis on digital marketing, then a lot could be done with even a small increase of the budget. As part of its Lebanon Economic Vision, international consulting firm McKinsey outlined their, at times, highly unrealistic strategy to promote Lebanon’s tourism sector. Despite all that can be critiqued in McKinsey’s vision, it still has ideas that may be worth discussing further in the long term; however, in the short term, the simpler plan would be to preserve and promote our tourism assets.
Most importantly, however, there needs to be a political will by all stakeholders to back up tourism in Lebanon and to coordinate and work together to achieve a stronger and more consistent tourism industry. The government has talked the talk for a long time when it comes to attracting more visitors—and more diverse nationalities—to Lebanon, it is time to walk the walk.