TBY talks to Fady Abboud, Minister of Tourism, on reform in the tourism sector, growth areas, and perceptions of the country around the world.

Fady Abboud
Before becoming Minister of Tourism, Fady Abboud had a successful career in industry, working in the packaging, plastic engineering, general machines and metal processing, and food businesses. Additionally, he has been elected as President of the Board of the Association of Lebanese Industrialists twice, and is also a member of the American Lebanese Chamber of Commerce and the International Chamber of Commerce.

In 2010 you stated that your goal was to reform the tourism sector. What have been your major steps so far, and looking forward what are your biggest objectives toward that end?

The most important thing is for the government to take tourism seriously. If you ask anyone, they'll tell you our most important sector is tourism. However, if you study the Lebanese public budget you'll see that the Ministry of Tourism gets less than 1% of the total. This does not make sense. We have to take tourism seriously not just in words; we have to put our money where our mouth is. We also need to think outside the box. Back in the 1960s when we started with the National Council for Tourism and after that the Ministry of Tourism, we created Law 58. This gave the Ministry the right to Build-Own-Transfer (BOT) projects and Public-Private-Partnerships (PPPs). No other country in the world was taking these steps at that time. We understood back then that tourism was important and the laws were designed specifically to allow the Ministry to take important steps without passing through the very complicated public sector processes. At this moment in time we do not have a vision, which is something I've been working on for the last two years. There are some fundamental questions I am asking. For example, why is it that we have only one airport? Why don't we see most of the low-cost flights coming here? Why is it that we don't have a center for meetings, incentives, conferences, and events (MICE) tourism? Why don't we have a major theme park? We are particularly well suited for that, and we could have a theme park manned by Lebanese people, unlike many of the theme parks in the region that are not staffed by locals but rather by cheap foreign labor. Why do we have only 40 tourism police rather than 240? When you cross our borders by land, why aren't there adequate facilities and service stations? Why don't we have resorts in Lebanon? Why does package tourism represent less than 3% of our tourism? Coming from Europe, why do British Midland Airways (BMI) and Middle East Airlines (MEA) have the exact same prices? We need to introduce more competition among airlines. Shopping, duty free and otherwise, has a better offering and better prices than many well-known shopping destinations in the region, so there is potential there. These are a few examples that speak to our potential strengths and reveal the type of reforms that I think are so important for the sector.

What are your target markets, and where do you see untapped potential?

We see a lot of untapped potential. We've addressed this by putting agencies in places like the ones we have in Germany and Britain. In Britain there are more than 100 Lebanese restaurants, and Lebanese food has become one of the top five or six cuisines, so interest in Lebanon and the potential to attract more British travelers is huge. The same is true for Spain and Russia. You have to also remember West Africa and Africa in general. There are hundreds of thousands of Lebanese living there, and we have good relations with those countries. Nigeria and Ghana are big markets for us with even more potential. The South American market, again due in large part to the Lebanese diaspora, also has great potential. More than 1.5 million Argentineans alone are of Lebanese origin. Of course, North America has a significant diaspora as well. The whole of the Americas has great potential. It is my hope that MEA and other airlines will start flying direct to the American continents.

Global Blue just announced that tourism spending is up 8% in Lebanon during the first nine months of 2011. To what can we attribute this rise in tourism receipts despite a drop-off in arrivals?

The decline in arrivals in 2011 is due to the problems in Syria. We have an average of 600,000 people arrive via land every year. Because you have to pass through Syria, this number dropped by half in 2011. We still managed to see an increase in tourism receipts, however, because we are emphasizing middle-income rather than lower-income groups. The average spending of a tourist in Lebanon is $4,000, which makes it one of the highest in the world, and this is very positive for us.

“The average spending of a tourist in Lebanon is $4,000, which makes it one of the highest in the world."

What do you want people around the world to think of when they think of Lebanon?

We want them to recognize that we are probably the most cosmopolitan country in the world. This is a country where you can walk into a pub and feel like you are in London. Walk in to a cafe and feel like you are in Paris, or even go to an Italian restaurant and feel like you are in Milan. And it is not just through the restaurants, but also through the people and their education. People grow up in this country speaking English, French, and Arabic. On top of this is the rich history of the country. You can visit churches here that are 2,000 years old. People forget how important this part of the world is for history and religions. Many aren't aware that the alphabet, even for Western languages, originated here. At the same time you can visit a very modern city. Finally, people should realize that when they are visiting Lebanon they are not just visiting this country, they are also visiting the Lebanese people, people who have invented a special joie de vivre.