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Lebanon 2013 | TOURISM & RETAIL | REVIEW: TOURISM

Although the success of previous years is out of reach in 2013, Lebanon's tourism industry is preparing to bounce back full force when visitor inflows return.

Lebanon has long been one of the most alluring destinations in the Middle East. With a perfect blend of Levantine culture and Mediterranean lifestyle, the country is home to Roman ruins, historic mosques and churches, pristine coastline, and an energetic nightlife that appeals to businesspeople and tourists alike. Despite ongoing security concerns in 2013, the tourism industry remains a key feeder for the economy, comprising as much as 25% of GDP.

According to the Ministry of Tourism, the first eight months of 2013 saw around 891,079 tourist arrivals compared to 986,649 in 2012, down by 10%. The 2013 figure also marks a decrease of 43% when compared to the same period in the peak tourism year of 2010.

Weathering the storm, Lebanon's 450 hotels have adjusted to stay afloat amid lower occupancy rates and a decline in tourist numbers. Some of the most successful businesses have been boutique hotels, which are achieving near-full occupancy.

In addition, the medical tourism industry has seen steady figures in 2013, promising growth in coming years. Patients from Europe, the US, and the Gulf states seeking affordable treatment and those with poor access in areas of Iraq and Syria comprise Lebanon's main markets.

According to predictions by the World Travel and Tourism Council (WTTC), Lebanon's tourism sector was due to grow 1.8% year on year in 2013, attracting $4.2 billion in terms of direct tourism receipts and $11.4 billion in direct and indirect receipts combined. Although these figures are unlikely to become a reality, the WTTC forecast signifies the importance of tourism to the national economy and its potential for growth.

Meanwhile, rankings from the World Economic Forum (WEF) for travel and tourism competitiveness reveal Lebanon as a global leader. In 2013, it was ranked number one for tourism “affinity," which measures how open society is to foreign visitors and is based on tourism-related expenditures, the population's attitudes toward foreigners, customer orientation, and recommendations by business leaders. Overall, the WEF report ranked Lebanon as the 69th best tourist destination in 2013, one position higher than in 2011. At the same time, Lebanon weighed in as the seventh most competitive Arab state in terms of its tourism offering.

IN & OUT OF BEIRUT

As the country's capital and cultural center, Beirut has been the focus of attention for the tourism industry for decades. Regardless, accommodation outside of Beirut has seen a variety of occupancy rate surges in recent years, largely generated by Syrian and Iraqi customers.

According to a recent survey conducted by Ernst & Young, the average occupancy rate at hotels in Beirut was 56% in 1Q2013, down 66% compared to the previous year. Meanwhile, the average rate per room at hotels in the city reached $161 in 1Q2013, making the capital's hotels the 11th most expensive in the region. However, the average rate fell by 23.3% in year-on-year terms, posting the sharpest decrease among all of the markets in the region. The average rate per room in Beirut also ranked below the regional average of $194, which increased by 1.7% over 2012.

The benchmark survey also revealed that revenues per available room (RevPAR) reached only $90 in Beirut in 1Q2013, down significantly from the $140 they were worth in 1Q2012, and ranking 13th in the region. Across the MENA region, RevPAR grew by 4%. Beirut recorded RevPAR of $82 in January, $97 in February, and $93 in March 2013, compared to $139 in January, $131 in February, and $149 in March 2012, again demonstrating the sharpest decline in the region.

Although the Eid Al-Fitr holiday in August 2013 saw a number of luxury hotels in Beirut filled to capacity, visitor stays were generally shorter and room occupancy was closer to 75% overall. Following the end of the summer holidays, occupancy at luxury hotels fell to 30%, with similar statistics surfacing for the month of September.

MEDICAL & MICE

When it comes to the question of health, travel warnings and political turmoil are no obstacle for tourism in Lebanon. Despite the declining number of business and leisure tourists, the country remains a regional healthcare hub and medical tourism destination. According to a local survey, 20% of the total number of patients in hospitals interviewed was comprised of foreign visitors seeking treatment in Lebanon.

Lebanon's hospitals are famous in the fields of oncology and digestive illness, cardiac health, and brain surgery, with 85% of medical tourists seeking treatment in those areas. Meanwhile, plastic surgery makes up a small percentage of the country's international patient needs, according to Mounes Kalaawi, Partner and Chief Executive of Clemenceau Medical Center.

While hospitals and medical professionals focus on attracting medical tourists, other sectors of the economy are seeing crossover growth in terms of tourism. “Our excellent facilities attract a variety of conferences to the country," Mazen Salha, President of SGHL (Phoenicia), explained to TBY. “We host many pharmaceutical and medical conferences, the frequency of which is on the increase."

Hoteliers have also looked toward MICE and medical tourism opportunities to offset losses arising from travel warnings and security concerns. In an interview with TBY, Nather Auchi, General Manager of Le Royal, explained, “With travel bans and negative coverage from the region hitting our TV screens, we've learned to streamline our costs and increase revenues. We've penetrated new markets such as medical travel and conference business."

LOCAL OPERATORS

As the number of visitors at conventional hotels, bars, and restaurants declines, local hospitality operators are seeking new niches and ways to be profitable in 2013. In the meantime, a variety of external factors have made business owners and authorities optimistic.

One such factor is the isolation of Syria's airports, which led to a larger amount of passenger traffic being routed through Beirut. A trickle-down effect has been the increasing number of overnight stays, specifically in terms of business travelers. Beirut has also become a key hub for the Syrian business community, especially when arranging to meet contractors or partners from Europe. Another element benefiting local operators is that tourism real estate seems to be retaining its value, increasing by about 5% to 6% each year.

Domestic and leisure tourists are also being targeted as growth markets. Blending innovativeness with coping strategies, restaurant operators have capitalized on a nature-loving client base by developing more outdoor venues. Over the summer season, such venues saw a renaissance that diverted tourist traffic away from some of the traditional tourism hot spots. In May 2013, caretaker Tourism Minister Fadi Abboud launched the Zouk Mikael International Festival program to emphasize Lebanon as a cultural hub for the Arab world. Held in July, the festival featured hundreds of performances and attracted thousands of domestic and international spectators. Successful hoteliers have been shifting away from a focus on luxury and extravagance to smaller, high-quality ventures that target a domestic niche and foreign visitors with security concerns.

However, many entrepreneurs continue to wait for a significant turnaround. Noting Lebanon's tourism potential, Peter Achkar, Head of the Association of Hotel Owners in Lebanon, explained to Executive Magazine, “a recovery in Lebanon is very quick. After the 2006 war, within 10 days we were fully booked. Give us stability and security, and we don't need anything [else]."