The tourism industry has long been touted as a main contributor to GDP in Lebanon’s services-oriented economy, but it endured an almost four-year long downturn following the onset of the war in Syria in 2012 and the Arab Gulf countries’ travel advisories against Lebanon that have been issued on and off since mid-that year. The tourism industry has been gradually recovering since 2014, and although it is still not back to its much-hailed peak of 2010, it seems there is a strong will among stakeholders to get Lebanon back in its tourism groove.
On March 19, during an afternoon Q&A session at the national “Towards Sustainable Tourism” conference, Prime Minister Saad Hariri said that several sectors in Lebanon’s economy benefit from tourism and, as such, more attention should be given to the sector. This, he said, should start with “improving our performance and working more scientifically.”
In McKinsey’s Lebanon Economic Vision (LEV), tourism showed up in a double role, once as a proposed driver of economic growth along with other pillars, such as industry and agriculture, and then again as one of three “flagship projects” proposed by the international consultancy firm as “quick wins” for Lebanon. Regardless of the feasibility of implementing its recommendations, (for a critique of the tourism section of the LEV, see comment), the inclusion of tourism in the report has at least kick-started the conversation on developing and maximizing the potential of the tourism industry in Lebanon.
The tourism sector has indeed been getting back on its feet starting 2014. The number of visitors to Lebanon last year was 1.96 million, an increase from 1.86 million in 2017, according to figures from the Ministry of Tourism that show tourism numbers steadily rising these past four years. In its 2018 Economic Impact report, the World Travel and Tourism Council placed tourism’s direct contribution to Lebanese GDP at 6.5 percent, the highest it has been since 2012 (though still considerably lower than the above 10 percent contribution to GDP seen in 2010).
The tourism year started on a positive note with a white blanket of snow encouraging both local and foreign ski enthusiasts to hit the slopes. Both Zaarour Club, a ski resort in Metn’s Zaarour, and the Mzaar Ski Resort, in Kfardebian, reported an active season which began on December 31 last year and ended in the second week of April—as compared to only 20 operational days in the 2018 season for Zaarour Club and a month and a half for Mzaar Ski Resort, which at a higher elevation. Speaking for Zaarour Club, its chairperson and CEO Carol el-Murr says 44,000 skiers took to their slopes this year compared to just 14,000 last season.
Both ski resorts have a hotel on the premises and say occupancy rates this winter were better than those of 2018. While Intercontinental Mzaar was unable to provide occupancy rates, they did disclose that 27 percent of guests were non-Lebanese. Murr says Le Grand Chalet had an average of 58.75 percent occupancy from December through March (as compared to 35.5 percent average occupancy for the same period in 2018), with 57 percent of guests non-Lebanese.
Another positive start to 2019 tourism in Lebanon was Saudi Arabia lifting its travel advisory against Lebanon on February 13. While the impact of this decision can only be really evaluated with the start of the summer season following the Eid el-Fitr break in early June, early indicators are favorable in terms of Saudi tourists further bolstering Lebanon’s tourism sector.
Tourist arrivals to Lebanon for the first two months of 2019 were 231,055, a 4.22 percent increase from the same period in 2018, according to figures from the Ministry of Tourism. The number of Saudi nationals visiting Lebanon during that period (effectively the two weeks following the travel advisory being lifted) was 10,041 as compared to the 6,009 Saudi tourists recorded during the same period last year. According to an earlier interview Executive conducted with head of the syndicate of hotel owners Pierre Achkar (see December 2017 issue), tourists from the Arab Gulf are particularly advantageous to the industry given that their average length of stay in Lebanon is longer—at least 10 days—than tourists from Europe and the Near East, and that they tend to be higher spenders, opting for suites instead of regular rooms, and also spending more in the country. The latest figures from tourist tax refund company Global Blue’s Lebanon insights indicate that tourism spending by Saudi nationals during the first quarter of 2019 increased by 45 percent from the same period in 2018.
Even if the Saudis visit Lebanon in the numbers that they used to in the years prior to 2012, it seems Minister of Tourism Avedis Guidanian has learned the lesson of not having Lebanon reliant on one tourism stream alone. On April 15, he announced his ministry’s plan to boost the sector through diversifying the tourism markets and attracting visitors from Europe, even while the ministry continues to focus on tourists from the Arab region.
365 days of tourism
As Wadih Kanaan, president of the tourism, transport, and civil regulation committee at the Economic and Social Council, notes, Lebanon has traditionally been a summer destination with a peak number of tourists in July, August, and the first half of September—as well as major holidays like Eid el-Fitr and Christmas—and a drop throughout the year otherwise. Taking 2018’s figures as an example, tourist arrivals to Lebanon peaked in July at 262,779 (with June and August close to July’s highs), while numbers for the rest of the year were significantly lower. For example, Lebanon received only 159,187 tourists in April, and 129,520 in November.
Kanaan believes that if tourism in Lebanon is to be a consistent driver of economic growth, then there has to be a national strategy for year-long tourism that would bring in a more or less steady stream of visitors. He says his committee has been working with a comprehensive list of stakeholders (which includes everyone from managers of car rental companies, to tour operators, to owners of hotels and restaurants, along with heads of tourism syndicates and related ministries of transportation, interior, economy, and environment) to create a national policy for tourism that has achieving year-long tourism as its main goal, an aim that was absent from previous strategies that placed focus on summer beach tourism.
Although details of the strategy have not been shared to date, Kanaan says that in order to achieve year-long tourism—he calls it sustainable tourism—we should start by diversifying Lebanon’s tourist offerings and packaging them into destinations, complete with the proper tourism infrastructure such as hotels, restaurants, and a good transport network, which Kanaan says is key for tourists to be able to get around in Lebanon as they are accustomed to in other countries. “The council’s goal is to have year-long tourism and when we create attractive destinations across Lebanon, we will be able to do just that. For example, if we were able to develop one ski destination in Lebanon which would have 70 hotels with 15,000 rooms then we can market it as a destination abroad,” he says.
According to Kanaan, and based on Executive’s fieldwork, Lebanon does indeed have the potential for diverse tourism offerings that could be further explored and promoted to attract visitors to Lebanon throughout the year. Ecotourism has been on the rise over the past five years, especially during spring when Lebanon’s freshwater bodies are at their peak appeal for more on freshwater tourism, see article. Kanaan is a main promoter of religious tourism in Lebanon and believes this offering lends itself to year-long tourism as those tourists would be in Lebanon for the religious sites, regardless of the season.
Getting the word out
While creating destinations and packaging them is an important first step, it is not enough, says Kanaan. He argues that instead of vaguely marketing Lebanon as a country destination abroad, we should focus on promoting individual destinations that exist in the country but are under-used or promoted for more on marketing Lebanon, see comment. “Instead of promoting Lebanon as a whole we should promote tourism destinations inside of Lebanon because we have a diversity of offerings in Lebanon. We can have a destination for skiing, another one for cultural tourism, another one for religious tourism, beach tourism and so on … so a European would come to Lebanon because he is interested in ecotourism for example. We have all this to offer, but we don’t have a clear identity for any of tourism assists that would make it a destination,” explains Kanaan.
Despite a soon-to-be launched strategy for year-long tourism in Lebanon, the country remains the busiest in summer for now. As such, summer 2019 will be a telling test as to whether tourism can indeed be a viable contributor to the economy.