How can Lebanon compete in tourism?

Diversify to succeed

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Dubai is ranked the fourth most-visited city in the world according to the Mastercard Global Destination Cities Index 2018. New attractions and experiences have contributed to Dubai’s success, bulwarked by a comprehensive marketing strategy. Campaigns promoting Dubai tourism showcase the city as a safe and exciting destination for travelers. Dubai’s marketing plan is primarily accomplished by the efforts of a large group of independent firms and agencies that work together to serve their independent interests. Those carrying out the marketing plan include both private-sector firms and public-sector agencies (e.g. the Department of Tourism and Commerce Marketing). The success of Dubai’s marketing should prove to Lebanon the need for a better public-private strategic and systematic coordination. In Lebanon, sadly, there has not been serious attention to the role of the private sector in investment decision-making and management of tourist spots in order to increase the prosperity of the tourism industry.

Lebanon has many natural, cultural, and social strengths that have enabled it to carry out its tourism activity. However, it should be noted that its strengths are not enough to carve its place in world tourism today. What Lebanon needs is a destination marketing plan that promotes the country as a must-visit tourist destination. McKinsey’s Lebanon Economic Vision (LEV) highlighted the tourism sector as one of the five sectors the company believed should be focused on in order to revamp the economy. While McKinsey’s recommendations include realistic strategies such as creating a “vibrant calendar” for events and issuing bulk visa for corporates, the plan still lacks in several areas. For example, while it outlines changes necessary for an improved aviation policy, these need fleshing out in order to constitute a fully comprehensive plan that could aid the tourism sector. Moreover, Tripoli—the city with the second-largest amount of Mamlouk architectural heritage in the world—is not mentioned in the tourism section of McKinsey’s LEV, raising serious questions as to whether certain cities have been given priority at the expense of others in McKinsey’s vision.

Another element that was missing from McKinsey’s tourism vision was clarity on how Lebanon can compete with neighboring mass tourism regions. To be able to position itself in a harsh competition context, Lebanon must put in place differentiation strategies for tourism promotion. These tactics will be based on several factors, such as the establishment of country brand, the diversification of tourism products, the diversification of markets, the development of ecotourism, and the reduction of airport taxes. In its plan, McKinsey put emphasis on traditional approaches to tourism promotion, such as boosting medical tourism and business (MICE) tourism. However, the competitiveness potential for medical and MICE tourism is highly limited given the head start of regional countries such as Turkey and the UAE.  

In order to assert Lebanon’s competitive edge over its neighbors, the government should first polish up its image. Lebanon still suffers from the lingering hangover of wars and political conflicts. The role of tourism diplomacy is critical in order to promote destination Lebanon; this means opening new offices of representation and tourism promotion in the various source markets with high tourist potential. Securing the services of a local tourism professional in each issuing market would be an important strategic act; their role would be to participate in the implementation of a marketing and communication strategy, as well as the necessary lobbying with the tour operators and sales networks. In addition, Lebanon has to target niche markets. Creative approaches from the government ought to promote Lebanon as a tourist destination for cultural, religious, and  gastronomic tourism, as well as leisure and recreational tourism. Another opportunity to diversify Lebanon’s tourism offerings would be to sign agreements and partnerships with international event planners as an essential part of promoting the country as the preferred Arab wedding destination. 

In 2018, Lebanon ranked 105 out of 137 countries on the World Economic Forum’s Travel and Tourism Competitiveness Index. Lebanon’s unfavorable competitiveness rank can be partially attributed to the sector’s poor tourism infrastructure. With a view to promoting tourism, new activities should be launched in order to foster rapid development of the tourism infrastructure, in terms of both physical facilities, and the quality and diversity of tourism services. This should include restoration and protection of archeological sites such as the castle in Saida, natural sites like Qornet Sawda, urban infrastructure, and transportation.

Samer Elhajjar has a PhD in marketing from the University of Strasbourg. He is an assistant professor at the University of Balamand and consults in strategic management and marketing.