Fewer tourists are coming to Lebanon, which finds itself in the shadow of the Syrian crisis. But there are things that the country could do differently to attract more visitors, especially from outside the Gulf countries, reports Cornelia Zeineddine.
Beirut stands as the flagship of Lebanon. Epically crowned the ”Paris of the Middle East,” the capital is often associated with its shiny covers, surgically enhanced females, democratic appearance, and the famous joie de vivre in politically unstable times.
It is not far from Europe’s capitals and has the potential to become a tourism hotspot; visitors can ski in the morning and enjoy the sea in the evening; trek and hike among ancient vestiges; and try the world-known cuisine and winery. A small country territorially speaking, viewed idyllically as a paradise on earth endowed by Mother Nature. These are only some of the tourist brochures’ stereotypes where emphasis is on abundance, widespread in the collective imaginary of Lebanese who feel nostalgic about the pre-civil war tourist boom.
However, Lebanon is not so idyllic and fewer and fewer tourists are coming to the country. Its shaky state construction, that lies at crossroads of East and West, took a downturn on neutrality and stability subsequent to the Syrian crisis. With the soaring number of refugees, the fate of the Lebanese economy is at stake and many now question for how long the downfall of tourism can be absorbed by the country?
“Now that the season is practically more or less in shatters, GDP growth will definitely slip back below 2 percent (forecasted by the International Monetary Fund for 2013),” economist Ghazi Wazni told the Daily Star.
However, Lebanon’s reputation for instability and violence is not new; its own civil war raged from 1975 to 1990, and the country has long suffered from Syria’s meddling in its internal affairs.
Consternation rose in the tourism business when Gulf governments removed the green light for their citizens to travel to Lebanon due to the Syrian strife invoking security threats. In fact the issue is deeper and thornier than that and it has roots in the stormy waters of Lebanese sectarianism. The Lebanese in the aim for profit created a safe haven for the hedonistic lifestyle appreciated by visitors from the Gulf. They have the ability spend large sums of money and given the geographical proximity they travel often and easily to Lebanon, mainly in summer time.
When one asks the opinion of the hoteliers, the answers come accordingly to the realm of the socio-political Lebanese uncertainty. Firas Sukkarieh, a Financial Accountant at Coral Suites Al Hamra offered Your Middle East an insider’s view of the business.
How much does Lebanon depend on tourism?
“Tourism contributes to about 35.5 percent of the GDP while 9.5 percent of the total labour force in Lebanon works in the tourism sector, which is ranked 69th among 181 countries in terms of contribution to GDP in 2012.”
What do you find particular in the way Lebanese deal with the tourism industry?
“In my own opinion, the Lebanese don’t know how to advertise their country in an efficient way. All what they aim for is fast endowment with cash. This resulted in attracting only Gulf tourists. They spend lots of money in cash and only aim for nightclubs and restaurants and shopping due to the fact that they have social restrictions in their countries. Consequently, more than 60% of the tourism income goes to greater Beirut area while the most important attractions in Lebanon are utterly left unknown. So instead of depending on tourism to develop the country in an efficient way, Lebanon is creating huge social differences and thus obliging rural residents to leave their places and settle in Beirut where they find more work opportunities.”
What would you enhance about Lebanese tourism?
“I would devise a marketing campaign highlighting all the cultural, historical and religious attractions of the country in order to diversify the types of upcoming tourists and to attract mainly the Europeans, Japanese, and Koreans.”
The rebranding of the Lebanese image in European and American media might lure tourists back. 2010 was a good year for tourism in the post-war era. However, nowadays even the Lebanese diaspora have second thoughts about spending time and money in Lebanon.
There are many hidden gems in Lebanon that even the natives themselves rarely know about. In school I identified Tyre, the citadel of purple, while the local taxi driver thought that as a foreigner I would go and visit their UNFIL mission. Post-war realities equal losses on many fronts, including cultural disdain.
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