No cultural tourism enthusiast would feel that a trip to Beijing is complete without visiting the Forbidden City, or to Athens without at least passing by the Acropolis, and the same thing can be said for Paris and the Louvre Museum. While cultural tourism is not the only form of tourism, it is the one that brings in the largest number of visitors to a country. Lebanon, which also has culturally significant antiquities has failed to cultivate these sites as touristic destinations that would match the aforementioned attractions.
Global examples such as Petra in Jordan or the Mayan Temples in Mexico show that developing touristic destinations around culturally significant landmarks can be done and would bring in benefits such as an increased number of visitors to the country, as well as increased economic benefits including investment opportunities in businesses complementary to tourism and employment.
Yet, Lebanon has largely missed this opportunity with only Byblos coming close to being a tourist destination, thanks to private sector investment in the city and the goodwill of its municipality. Other areas with cultural antiquities, such as the temples of Baalbeck or the hippodrome and seaside ruins in Tyre are ignored and left to languish with the little domestic tourism they can bring in (see article page 50).
So what can be done to change that and benefit from our country’s potential for cultural tourism? The basic and necessary first step would be a change of attitude by all stakeholders in the tourism industry, starting with the Ministry of Tourism itself, moving away from complaining about their limitations towards a more constructive attitude.
The Ministry of Tourism, charged with promoting and marketing these cultural sites, should research good examples of touristic destinations centered around cultural antiquities and develop a national plan that can be applied within the Lebanese context. Instead, the Ministry of Tourism has focused its strategy for the next five years on rural tourism. While it is a viable form of tourism for sure, it does not make a lot of sense to prioritize promotion of largely unknown locales over one of Lebanon’s most valuable touristic assets — its antiquities and rich cultural history.
Meanwhile, while it benefits the municipalities where cultural ruins are located to cultivate a viable city that will attract tourism — not only do they collect half of the total entrance charges, but they also collect taxes from building permits — it is often left up to a mayor’s personal initiative to back tourism projects through facilitating their development in terms of permits and such.
A good municipality can either make or break a touristic destination as there are no institutional practices or national plans to enforce and encourage positive action. Here again, a change of attitude from fatalistic to “can do” would be more beneficial to the city itself. Instead of municipalities complaining about a lack of budget, they could use whatever opportunities or investments they have at hand to attract tourists and more investors, such as in the case of Byblos.
Tourism is touted as being one of the pillars of the Lebanese economy; if this is the case then a more serious and well studied approach should be taken for its development and promotion. One where all stakeholders know their role and energetically follow a national strategy based on specific research and data.