GAINING MOMENTUM

Lebanon 2018 | TOURISM & ENTERTAINMENT | REVIEW

The tourism sector took a major hit following the outbreak of war in Syria. However, dedication from the government and private sector to minimize the impact and bring back tourists is proving effective.

Lebanon was once a top tourism destination in the region. Though it still attracts scores of tourists each year, the neighboring conflict in Syria has put a strain on the country and industry and resulted in a significant drop in tourist arrivals. Ever resilient, the country is hard at work to rebuild its base, and efforts thus far have proven highly successful.

The industry saw serious trouble in 2011 following the outbreak of the war in Syria. That year, Lebanon saw its tourist arrivals decrease by more than half a million, from 2.16 million in 2010 to 1.65 million in 2011. The decline continued for another two years, bottoming out at 1.27 million in 2013. In 2014 the annual growth rate finally returned to the black, and in 2016, the country saw nearly 1.7 million tourist arrivals. Though the annual growth rate for 2016, 11.23%, was slightly lower than the previous year, 12.05%, the country is on a clear trajectory to bringing back pre-2010 numbers.

Visitors from Arab countries represent a significant portion of Lebanon's tourism base. Overall, numbers of arrivals from Arab countries have declined significantly since 2010. The most hard-hit source countries were Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and the UAE, with the number of tourists declining from 2011 to 2016 by 63.8%, 58.5%, and 93.4%, respectively, according to BLOM Bank. The country relies on these Arab tourists due to their relatively high purchasing power. Meanwhile, Lebanon saw Arab visitors with a lower purchasing power, specifically visitors from Iraq and Egypt, increase in number, from 129,294 in 2011 to 236,013 in 2016 for Iraqis, and from 62,825 to 83,337 for Egyptians.

Offsetting the decline in Arab tourists was a moderate increase in the number of European tourists, BLOM Bank reports. European visitors increased by 16% in 2016, bringing the total to 564,499, while the number of American visitors increased by one-third to 296,831. BLOM Bank attributes this increase to a rise in leisure concepts favored by Americans and Europeans, such as guesthouses, boutique hotels, and bed and breakfasts that are located in towns and villages outside Beirut.

The country has faced a number of factors aside from the Syrian war itself that affected tourism numbers. Several countries from the Gulf imposed travel restrictions on Lebanon, resulting almost immediately in registered declines.

The government is working on several ways to expand and diversify its tourism offering portfolio. In recent years, it has started working to attract visitors specifically for holidays and festivals. In September 2016, when the Muslim holiday of Eid el Adha was celebrated, Lebanon saw tourist arrivals reach 164,605, the highest number recorded for September since 2013.

However, the country is not just attracting Muslim tourists. The Christmas and New Year holidays in December brought in a post-2010 record number of tourists, with 141,537 arrivals, according to BLOM Bank. The occupancy rate of Beirut hotels rose to 64% for December 2016, just one point off from December 2010. The government's marketing may not be the sole force behind this increase however; between December 2010 and December 2016, the average daily rate for a hotel room dropped by nearly USD100, from USD242 in 2010 to USD148 in 2016. Accordingly, revenue per room decreased from USD159 in December 2010 to USD95 in December 2016.

TBY sat down with Claude Saba, the COO and Managing Partner of Addmind, a diversified entertainment group. Saba discussed the state of the industry in the country and how it is working to bring more tourists back: “Lebanese people know what they like, and they follow concepts, excellent service, and taste wherever they are offered,” Saba said. “In Lebanon if one has a great concept and experience, people will come. Since we firmly believe in the country, we work to open up new opportunities to invest in Lebanon. We are still opening new concepts; for example, our strategy and budget for 2018 will focus on opening seven new establishments in Lebanon.”