LIVE, LOVE, LEBANON

Lebanon 2014 | TOURISM & RETAIL | REVIEW: TOURISM

The Lebanese tourism sector is failing to attract the number of foreign visitors it once did; however, a number of new initiatives may reverse this trend and bring back the good times.

The last few years have been tough for the tourism industry in Lebanon. According to the Ministry of Tourism, total arrivals had decreased for the third consecutive year at the end of 2013 standing at 1.27 million, down 6.69% from 1.37 million in 2012 and 23% from 1.66 in 2011. This trend extended into 1Q2014 when a total of only 229,252 tourists arrived, a decrease of 16.5% on the 274,663 that had arrived over the same period in 2013. This ongoing reduction was primarily due to the continuing instability in the country on account of there not being a government, an instability that was partly remedied when the government of national interest was formed in February 2014. The Bank Audi first quarter report identifies that there has been a cumulative contraction of 60% since the beginning of the Syria crisis, and that average hotel occupancy rates have fallen from 67% in 2013 to 51% in 2014. The dip in this industry can be measured alongside real domestic investment having fallen by 15% over the same period, and total FDI by 24%.

According to the World Travel and Tourism Council's Lebanon 2014 report, the direct contribution of travel and tourism to GDP was $3.2 billion (6.9% of total GDP) in 2013, while the estimate of the indirect contribution of travel and tourism to GDP was $9 billion, or 19.2% of GDP in 2013. In 2015, these figures are forecast to rise by 2.1% and 2.2%, respectively. Travel and tourism generated 92,500 jobs directly in 2013 (6.7% of total employment), which is forecast to grow by 2.7% in 2014 to 95,000 (6.8% of total employment) and place Lebanon 99th in the world in this regard.

In May and June 2014, a series of meetings between GCC leaders and their Lebanese counterparts led to the travel ban imposed by GCC countries on their citizens being lifted. The ban had proven a major spanner in the works. Imposed following the kidnapping of a number of Gulf citizens since June 2012, the ban went through various different phases of being official and non-official, and was largely geo-politicized by the GCC states as a means of sanctioning Hezbollah, Lebanon's largest political party, and their alleged military and operational assistance to the Syrian regime. The war next door has gradually increased the number of terrorist factions crossing Lebanon's borders and carrying out indiscriminate suicide bombings, mostly in the Bekaa Valley and Beirut's southern suburbs. This led to a dramatic drop in foreign visitors, and investor confidence, and a rapidly instilled sentiment of disgust and despair on the part of the Lebanese. European and Western states consequently stepped up their travel warnings as well, and the numbers of European visitors decreased dramatically in the third and fourth quarters of 2013, and the first quarter of 2014.

Following the formation of the government in 2014, and the army's valiant attempts to restore order on the streets of Tripoli showing solid results, there seemed to be an overriding sentiment of optimism in the hotels, mountain getaways, and coastal resorts, which has undoubtedly had a positive effect on the tourism industry. The most important thing is "that there is now a political will, though not an agreement on security," said Minister Michel Pharaon, during an interview with TBY.

The cabinet of national interest has aimed to resuscitate sectors of the economy where confidence is a key determinant of demand, particularly with regard to tourism, investment, and exports. A key way in which all three can be strengthened is through Lebanon's hub status for business conferences. Lebanon reaffirmed its reputation as a business hub during June, which saw six international business conferences focused on trade, economy, and the forum for debate organized during Lebanon's glorious spring season. The business intelligence brand behind the conferences, Al-Iktissad Wal-Aamal, organized the hugely successful Arabic Economic Forum, attracting hundreds from the international business community, as well as regional ministers and heads of state. The proximity of these events to Lebanon's most famous five-star hotels in turn ensured that occupancy rates reached almost maximum capacity across the board.

Unfortunately for all, terrorism reared its ugly head again during a short spate of suicide attacks around Beirut in late June, renewing fears of instability creeping in just before the crucial summer high season. Nonetheless “reservations after the month of Ramadan were around 15% higher than in 2013. Planes were so fully booked that Middle East Airlines put 40 extra flights on to Riyadh for the season," according to Tourism Minister Pharaon.

However the indicators for Lebanon's hotel industry as a whole were not promising. According to EY Benchmark's report for the first five months of the year, Lebanon's average occupancy rate was at 46%, down from 58% in 2013, and a regional average of 65%, making Beirut the second lowest occupancy rate in the region. Hoteliers have attempted to make Lebanese hotel accommodation more competitive over the last year. Figures published by Byblos Bank's Lebanon This Week report the country's average room rate as $155 per night for the first five months of 2014, down 8.9% on last year, the third steepest decline in the region. More concerning still is that Beirut's average revenues per available room (RevPAR) were at $73, down from $99 in the same period in 2013, this 26% decrease was the steepest decline of any country in the region.

The cyclical nature of investment booms is sadly correlated to that of violence and spurts of confidence in between. The long-term problem posed by perceived instability in the country warrants a long-term organic solution on the part of the Lebanese themselves, designed to remedy dependency on GCC high-value tourism and an admission that ultimately, it may be the Lebanese who love Lebanon the most.

In April 2014, the Ministry of Tourism launched a new campaign, “Live, Love, Lebanon," an indication that resuscitating Lebanon's tourism industry was clearly high on the cabinet of national interest's priorities. In July 2014, a 50-page document was drawn up by the company Beyond Beirut, a non-profit organization funded by USAID, that aims to establish a five-year plan for a sustainable Lebanese tourism industry, and has been endorsed by various stakeholders including guesthouse owners, ecotourism ventures, NGOs, and the Ministry of Tourism itself.

The strategy highlights a number of existing and potential attractions that can be further developed to appeal to both local and foreign visitors. “We go in and create packages for religious tourism…wine tourism, honey…and even silk. We strive to be modern and dynamic and express the feeding that something new is happening for tourism in Lebanon. This is what we have managed to do, through the website, through our campaign, and with these new packages" said Minister Pharaon during an interview with TBY. “Part of this is to have the Lebanese come to Lebanon more from expatriate countries and revisit Lebanon. We will have small hotels. Now, there are 60-80, but we think we can bring this up to 200 in the villages"

The idea is that bolstering infrastructure facilities around rural Lebanon will act both to significantly raise real domestic investment and travel amongst Lebanese, but will also bolster the country's reputation to attract greater FDI from expatriate and other Arab investors, who have traditionally supported the sector due to the rapidly increasing value of land. “It is not very difficult to make a small investment in Lebanon succeed, whether it is in restaurants or hotels," says Pharaon.

Lebanon's tourism infrastructure is within reach of being fantastic. There are countless trekking and hiking groups including Vamos Todos and Liban Trek, the management of the latter was responsible for mapping the Beirut Mountain Trail, a project financed by USAID and a landmark in Lebanon's mapping of its mountains for tourism and leisure purposes. It is projects such as this and Beyond Beirut that have the potential to lay the long-term foundations for the tourism sector to achieve the phenomenal growth it is capable of. Foreigners will always keep coming to Lebanon albeit in dwindling numbers if violence persists, but to take rural tourism beyond Beirut and to the next level the Lebanese need to set the example of how it ought to be done, through the good times and the bad.