Destination Lebanon

Lebanon

Lebanon’s ambitious get-up-and-go mindset is pushing its tourism industry to new and exciting heights. Tatiana Tsierkezou investigates.

Although 2016 was somewhat of a strenuous year for Lebanon’s tourism industry, movers and shakers are expressing feelings of optimism and are stronger than ever before, following a successful 2017 so far.

Supporting the positivity that can be felt among tourism players are statistics released by Ernst & Young, whose recent survey highlighted that hotel occupancy in the capital city, Beirut, stood at 63.4 per cent from January-April 2017, up from the 54.8 per cent recorded in the corresponding period last year.

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As for tourists visiting the county, Lebanon reportedly welcomed a total of 503,805 during the first four months of 2017, representing an impressive 17.5 per cent jump on the corresponding period in 2016.

With industry statistics speaking for themselves, TTG embarked on a journey to uncover the thoughts and feelings of Lebanon’s travel and tourism industry. The first to share his insight on the nature of the country’s tourism industry was CEO and founder, Amber Consulting (a hospitality consulting firm), Ralph Nader: “The market in Lebanon is very cyclical. It can go down quickly and then pick up just as quickly.”

Meanwhile, reflecting on a challenging 2016 was general manager, Le Gray, Beirut, Georges Ojeil: “We must say that business travel was not at its peak during 2016, however, it was noticeable that travellers came to attend the summer cultural festivals, which reached an unprecedented number last year. We also noticed a high touristic activity during the months of January and September during PHOTOMED, the festival of Mediterranean photography, and Beirut Art Fair, the contemporary art show covering the Middle East and Africa region.”

Ojeil further explained to TTG that Le Gray, Beirut witnessed and welcomed heightened interest from the Millennial market wishing to uncover Lebanon and its touristic magic.

“[This] is a good sign for the change in the traveller’s perception. This suggests that 2017, which started on a rather positive note, can be a good year in terms of new tourist affluence to the destination, mainly those coming for discovery,” he added.

Putting the age of visitors and reasons for travelling aside, where are visitors to Lebanon coming from? Answering this question, director of sales and marketing, Monroe Hotel Beirut, Roy Bou Gharios shared some fascinating statistics with TTG.

“In terms of tourist arrivals by nationality, tourists from Asia reported the highest year-on-year increase of 34.5 per cent and reached 41,910 in the first four months of 2017. Tourist arrivals from Arab countries reported a year-on-year increase of 22 per cent and reached 179,828 visitors.”

Gharios added that tourists from Oceania increased by 16.3 per cent, reaching 18,361, while tourists from Europe increased by 13.8 per cent and stood at 163,002. As for the number of American and African tourists, a year-on-year increase of 10.6 per cent and 7.6 per cent respectively was recorded, reaching 69,950 and 30,568.

CHALLENGE ACCEPTED

It comes as no surprise that Lebanon, a destination overflowing with culture and charm, has faced a number of trials and tribulations over recent years, however, travel and tourism entities are tackling these head on as a united front.

“Lebanon in general has mostly faced political challenges. We learned to push harder, visit more companies, create more awareness and show people that Lebanon is not the ‘scary’ country that the media portrays it to be. It is a charming, breath-taking and sparkling country,” declared general manager, Staybridge Suites Beirut, Ihab Kanawati.

Echoing Kanawati’s sentiment was managing director, Sandy Tours (a sister company of Cleopatra Tours), Dr. Rabih El Khatib: “Media and false information about the country’s security have been the challenges we have faced in Lebanon. We tried to solve this through promoting the correct image of Lebanon. We are trying to adapt to online [promotion] in the form of blogs and forums, to help individuals uncover the experiences of other visitors who have already been to Lebanon, and gain advice and recommendations.”

Also speaking to TTG about challenges was director of sales and marketing, The Smallville Hotel, Elizabeth Abou Nafeh: “Last year wasn’t a very fruitful year regarding tourism. It was rather sluggish, and coupled with the presidential crisis we went through, tourism in the country dwindled.

“This year however, the tourism industry as a whole has picked up the pace. We thankfully have a president now and our relationship with the GCC countries has drastically improved. Therefore, Lebanon is experiencing a resurgence in the number of tourists, especially from GCC countries. Hotels are bustling with visitors and many new and wonderful festivals are taking place.”

Meanwhile, shedding light on a different type of challenge faced, was Ojeil of Le Gray, Beirut: “Challenges were mainly caused by the price war that prevailed in the local market. The decrease in leisure travel in general resulted in a decrease in the average rates, because corporate rates are lower. Additionally, hotels with high room inventories needed to drop the rate in favour of volume. This created a trend to which all hotels had to align.”

And with Lebanon’s tourism industry having dramatically U-turned this year, how are movers and shakers uniting to raise awareness of this beautiful country’s tourism portfolio?

“This year, more exhibitions, fairs and events have been organised in Lebanon and this increased the touristic activities in the country,” shared Kanawati. “Recently, Staybridge Suites Beirut attended the Visit Lebanon Exhibition, which was organised by the Ministry of Tourism, as well as the Arabian Travel Market in Dubai to meet with travel agencies and expose the hotel to international buyers.”

THE NEED TO SUCCEED

Complementing the industry’s infallible attitude towards promoting the country’s fantastic portfolio, Lebanon’s Government recently unveiled a new tourism-related initiative: The Religious Cultural Tourism Project.

Launched by Saad Hariri, the Lebanese Prime Minister, in May of this year, the project works to promote the 3,000 religious sites possessed by the country.

Sharing insight on this exciting new initiative was Nader of Amber Consulting: “The first phase [of this project] includes an English database of religious sites, simplified maps for suggested routes, a website, a book, a promotional movie and a study on religious tourism.”

Nader further revealed that the development of rural tourism is still a focus for the country, while, regarding specific projects, one of the largest developments in the country, the 20,000m2 La Siesta in Khalde, officially opened its doors to the public last month.

“La Siesta is a beach resort with eco-friendly features and abundant green spaces. It includes beautiful chalets for seasonal or yearly rental, a ballroom for all kinds of events, Mediterraneo, an exquisite fish and Mediterranean restaurant, and a rooftop restaurant serving Shisha and oriental delights. This project is the only substantial beach resort project in the country for this year,” he told TTG exclusively.

And while developments roll out, spirits are lifted, and thus, positivity abounds in vibrant Lebanon, with further success anticipated.

“Lebanon has brushed the dust off its shoulders and is picking up the slack from last year,” remarked Abou Nafeh of The Smallville Hotel. “Our hotel is following suit and enjoying the resurgence of Gulf visitors. This is a rather positive year for us, and this is what is exciting me most. This opens up a world of possibilities.”

Concluding TTG’s investigation was Nader, who said: “2017 is exciting in a sense that the country has recovered to a good level of political stability and security. Investors are still cautious but we believe if the situation continues to have a positive outlook, projects that were on hold will be revived. The new government understood that tourism is our best assets and is keen to develop the sector further with some interesting initiatives like the rural tourism plan. As consultants for the hospitality sector, we already feel 2017 will be a better year than 2016 as we are receiving a lot of solicitations.”

Following a difficult tourism climate, Lebanon is again climbing the global ranks thanks to its determined approach and its strong-willed support network.