Back in the game and playing for keeps, Lebanon is taking its tourism industry to the top spot with tangible marketing strategies and salient improvements. Aleksandra Wood discovers.
Renowned for being the only destination on the regional map to have four seasons yearly – among other prevalent attributes, such as captivating archeological and historical sites, and unparalleled events and festivals, complimented by first-rate hotels, restaurants, nightclubs, theatres and luxury shopping destinations – Lebanon is successfully making its comeback on tourism agendas this year.
Following a lengthy period of regional instability, the country’s tourism sector saw a remarkable recovery in 2017 and recorded a staggering increase to 1.86 million visitors. In 2018, Lebanon witnessed a further increase in arrivals to 1.9 million, thus realising its highest hopes for the tourism industry: a powerful comeback.
According to deputy manager, Bella Riva Hotel, Ramona Wehbe, a profitable first quarter of 2019 has led to the outset of a promising summer season. She revealed: “The snow season, which lasted until April of this year, allowed tourists to enjoy ski sports in the morning and swimming in the afternoon during the same day. This happens only in Lebanon, as the distances between the ski resorts and the costal seas are short, and commuting between both is a 40-minute drive.
“In fact, Lebanon’s geographic location on the Mediterranean Sea, its diverse climate and its cultural heritage of over 10,000 years have contributed to making the country a prime destination for tourism in the region,” Wehbe added.
Evidently, Lebanon’s climate has played a pivotal role in facilitating visitor arrivals all year round, as explained by director of sales and marketing, Kempinski Summerland Hotel & Resort Beirut, Nadia Madi: “Financial results have been very satisfying in comparison to those of previous periods, especially in the winter season between September and May, during which we have seen great demand, with occupancy exceeding 70 per cent.”
The industry is buzzing with word of Lebanon’s restored tourism appeal, especially in neighbouring countries. The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia’s recent decision to lift its travel ban on the destination has resulted in an influx of travellers from the country, with the rest of the GCC countries expected to follow suit.
“We are optimistic that the number of travellers will progressively grow this summer, as Lebanon is the ultimate summer destination for its neighbouring countries,” Madi said.
Improvements in connectivity have brought an unexpected emergence in new markets for Lebanon. Scandinavian Airlines’ new Copenhagen-Beirut route, which launched in April, has encouraged a vast number of tourists from Scandinavian countries to explore the destination.
Director of marketing and PR, Le Gray Beirut, Rita Chbeir Saad revealed to TTG: “On the other hand, Middle East Airlines’ direct flight to Madrid not only facilitated travel between the two capitals, but from South American countries through Madrid as well. This includes tourists and the Lebanese diaspora.”
Due to the inrush of arrival numbers, an urgent $18 million expansion of Beirut Rafic Hariri International Airport was completed last month. The project, overseen by Engineer Elie Maalouf Company, enhanced capacity by two million passengers and boosted check-in counters from 22 to 34.
A larger, more robust expansion of the aviation hub is also in the works, valued at $500 million, which is expected to gradually increase capacity to 20 million passengers by 2030.
Growing numbers call for an expanded offering, as hospitality movers and shakers work to market the country as a multi-faceted destination with various niche tourism sectors to cater to any and all journeys.
“Lebanon’s Ministry of Tourism’s new strategy is targeting ‘365 days of tourism’, by creating and promoting different destinations for different segments, such as skiing, cultural tourism, religious tourism and beach tourism, among others,” explained Bella Riva Hotel’s Wehbe.
Religious tourism has garnered the interest of many a traveller this year, with ancient religious sites being renovated and inaugurated, to the public’s delight. Further to this, road infrastructure leading to these sites has been extended and redeveloped to coincide with international standards and requirements.
General manager, Royal Tulip Achrafieh, Kabalan Frangieh confirmed to TTG: “Lebanon is working on increasing religious tourism by creating special religious tours and marketing the country as a religious destination. Religious, historical and ecological events happening all year round add to the beautiful four-season weather.”
In addition to this, Lebanon continues to be a medical hub for MENA citizens seeking high-quality healthcare and medical follow-ups. Medical tourism, namely the healthcare community, is witnessing substantial expansion, with the extension of the American University of Beirut Medical Center and LAU Medical Center, as well as hospitals being developed in Nabatieh and Zahlé.
True Wealth, a health and wellness expert in the industry, is actively targeting travellers wishing to improve their lifestyle along their journeys by embracing nature and undergoing complete mind, body and soul rejuvenation through mindful escapes.
The company’s CEO, Manal Tamim, shared: “Emerging travel trends encourage us at True Wealth to maintain our growth in the medical field. For instance, nowadays, people are looking for wellness programmes that focus on the mental aspects of wellbeing. They increasingly select wellness destinations rather than the luxurious places. The more personal, well-customised and simplistic their experience, the better. Less sophisticated and more natural and organic travels [are sought].”
The vastness of potential improvements does not phase this bold country, as advancing its industry is seemingly at the top of Lebanon’s to-do list this year.
“In terms of touristic developments, the Ministry of Tourism and the government are always working on different initiatives to promote tourism in Lebanon, and we are always walking hand-in-hand with both parties,” Madi disclosed.
Lebanon’s tourism industry is brimming with objectives of various magnitudes, from short-term to long-term goals. It is undoubtedly focusing on boosting arrivals from countries such as the UAE, Kuwait, Iraq, Jordan and Egypt; the key European feeder markets of France, Germany, the UK, Italy and Sweden; as well as countries with a high number of Lebanese diaspora, such as Canada, the US and Australia.
“Lebanon is focusing on attracting leisure tourists from these 15 source countries by building core offerings such as city and entertainment, sun and sea, and culture, in three anchor destinations – Beirut, Byblos and Sour,” True Wealth’s Tamim opined. “[Along with] developing ultra-luxury eco-tourism hubs, Lebanon aims to maintain its image as a preferred destination for MICE travellers from the GGC and present a clear branding of the country in specialised tourism services.”
Key hospitality players are right on hand to help Lebanon secure these determining objectives for its industry.
Saad of Le Gray Beirut said: “Our aim is to sustain the positioning of Le Gray as the place to be when visiting Beirut. Our number one position on TripAdvisor and the reputation that we have built worldwide, as well as our lead position in occupancy among five-star hotels, allow us to aim for a record year. In parallel, our efforts are also focused on maintaining the highest satisfaction rates among our guests; this is what matters the most.”
Echoing a similar sentiment, Wehbe declared: “Bella Riva is fully prepared to attract tourists and offer them exceptional customer services with competitive benefit packages. Our purpose is to ensure an unforgettable experience to our clients through the quality services and guided tourism visits that are pre-studied, pre-planned and offered exclusively to our clients if they wish so.
Our occupancy rate is quite decent and competitive, and we expect to be overbooked in the coming few months.”
On that note, Lebanon will continue along its journey to prosperity, albeit a long one, with purposeful actions that will reinstitute its tourism industry to its former glory.