McKinsey’s tourism vision for Lebanon

A misguided strategy

Photo by: Greg Demarque | Executive
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Tourism is one of the most promising sectors as a driver of economic growth in Lebanon, and so was an essential part of McKinsey’s Lebanon Economic Vision (LEV). The management consultancy’s report—presented in the form of a 1274 slide-long powerpoint presentation—dedicated around 120 slides to the tourism sector. How was this vision developed, and does it constitute a comprehensive tourism strategy that takes into consideration the realities of Lebanon? Does this plan examine the ever-changing tourism and travel market with the emergence of new destinations and the shifts in travelers’ behaviors and preferences?

In the process of developing their tourism vision, McKinsey experts consulted with the tourism and culture ministries, a former tourism minister, the tourism committee of the Economic and Social Council, three main tourism syndicates (that represent conventional tourism services), and two persons in the nightlife business. We do not believe that the personal opinions of these stakeholders alone—to the exclusion of many other key actors representing different tourism types and market segments—were sufficient to build an integrated strategy for the sector. Moreover, the diagnostic upon which the vision was formulated did not draw a clear map of the sector dynamics from a value chain perspective. For example, the accommodation services considered by the study were limited to conventional hotels, and all other forms of accommodation were neglected. 

As a result of ignoring Lebanon-specifics, the tourism vision initiatives and recommendations were not comprehensive nor inclusive and showed a limited knowledge of the Lebanese legal context and framework. For example, McKinsey acknowledged the need to clean Lebanon’s public beaches in its recommendations, but listed their proposed “owner” for this task as the Ministry of Tourism, whereas this task necessitates the joint efforts of many public and private entities including the Ministry of Environment, the Ministry of Public Works and Transport, and concerned municipalities. Moreover, the initiatives’ prioritization seemed to fit with the interests of few stakeholders and serve the mass tourism concept with its leisure market segments, rather than promoting a sustainable tourism approach based on small scale adventure and experiential tourism forms that generate higher revenues and minimize the negative impacts of tourism on the natural and cultural resources. Based on our own research and research conducted abroad, it is clear that tourism development should incorporate different tourism types and create synergies and complementarities between them in order to respond to the diverse market demands for innovative and authentic experiences. 

From a marketing perspective, the LEV proposed to promote and brand Lebanon as the “up and coming Mediterranean Riviera” with three main types of tourism: leisure (including “City and Entertainment,” “Sun & Sea,” and “Culture,” as well as a “niche offering in ultra-luxury ecotourism”), business (with a focus on the MICE segment and the GCC), and medical. This market and branding vision bears many paradoxes, especially for two types of tourism. The ultra-luxury ecotourism concept does not match with the realities of Lebanon due to the small size of its nature reserves, their proximity to urban settlements, the fragility of natural ecosystems, and the absence of legislation for ecotourism in general. It is worth mentioning that none of the nature reserve managers or nature-based tour operators who have been working on this market were consulted.

As for the Sun & Sea segment of leisure tourism, it is one of the least competitive markets for Lebanon due to the low attractiveness of the coastline and the high levels of sea water pollution, in addition to the very low capacity to compete with neighboring destinations such as Turkey, Cyprus, and Egypt, resulting in a deteriorated value for money. Moreover, sun and sea tourism is not a trending market segment anymore according to many international studies and reports. 

Meanwhile, the 22 proposed priority initiatives did not promote a balanced socio-economic development model since they favored the center-periphery model, which increases disparities and gaps between urban and rural areas. The LEV mentions three tourism anchor destinations and urban/coastal hubs in Beirut, Byblos, and Sour, instead of developing regional tourism clusters and geographical destinations offering thematic experiences for travelers, with all what they need in terms of services, facilities, and activities.

In addition to that, as for most the economic sectors mentioned in the vision, the tourism priority initiatives are not presented with a clear time frame that identifies how long is needed for their implementation.

In terms of economic impact, the LEV estimated that the number of jobs in the tourism sector will increase from 89,000 in 2017 to 185,000 in 2025. However, there is no explanation of how these 96,000 jobs will be created in the space of six years, how they will be distributed on the different sub-sectors of the tourism industry, and which tourism businesses and services will absorb them. 

Thus, Lebanon’s tourism development strategy should be aligned with international market trends and should be flexible to cope with the fast changing environment. Moreover, it should be shaped according to Lebanon’s particularities, especially the unstable political scene and the frequent crises that should be faced by integrating the concept of resilience within the national tourism strategy. 

Jad Abou Arrage has a PhD in development sciences and is an assistant professor at the faculty of tourism and hospitality management at the Lebanese University.

Socrates Ghadban has a PhD in tourism economics and is an assistant professor at the faculty of tourism and hospitality management at the Lebanese University.