THE FRENCH CONNECTION
TEEMING roadside cafes. Soulful street singers. Latest designer showrooms.
Young, chic and trendy crowd strutting their stuff. Walk down Parliament Square in downtown Beirut by night and you could easily be forgiven for thinking you are in Paris. Post-war Beirut is working its way to get back on its feet – indeed you can see the city rising from the ashes as glass-and-concrete highrises are quickly replacing battle-scarred houses and hotels – and, for its new generation, the civil war is a thing of the past. A past they have either come to terms with or long forgotten.
There’s little or no sign of a people bogged down by the painful past. Enmities have been buried, differences have been sorted out and any cracks have been successfully papered. Right now, all of Lebanon has one goal: to see the great country return to its former glory.
It’s something that you can sense from the moment you land at Beirut International Airport. Eager to please and quick to make an impression, Lebanese are nothing if not enterprising. Smartly turned out immigration officials never forget to wear a ready smile – and flash it as they hand over your passport, welcoming you to Lebanon. While on the airport, it needs mention that it welcomed more arrivals last year than ever before – but that’s not all, this year a 20-per-cent jump in traffic has been projected over last year and Hamdi Chouk, Lebanon’s civil aviation chief, is pleased to note that 'for the first time, we might see 25 aircraft at all 25 gates at the same time!'
Impressed with both the airport – which is constantly improving and is set to inaugurate a $33 million, 120,000 sq m private jet terminal, with eight VIP lounges and 12 hangars – and its staff, I stepped out into the capital of Lebanon. But the near-chaos at the exit, where taxi drivers haggle for fares and try and elbow each other to grab your luggage is a quick reminder that not everything is in order. After considerable negotiating, I plonked on to a taxi – without airconditioning – settling for the best bargain: $25 to the hotel. But the long drive that I anticipated, given the fairly high fare, ended with a left turn, followed by right and then into the hotel’s parking lot. In less than five minutes!
Surely, taxis are expensive in Beirut. And since the cabs are not metered, you are at the mercy of taxi drivers, who think nothing of taking you for a ride. Later, I discovered, it was often cheaper to hire a limo from the hotel than hail a cab!
But, on the flip side, what I also discovered was that Lebanon was, if anything, value for money. There’s so much to see, explore and discover in Lebanon. And the best part is that, given its reasonably small size, one can cover all its many delights – from the ski slopes of Cedar and Faraya to the historic coastal cities of Sidon, Byblos, Tyr and Tripoli to the acropolis of Baalbek in the Bekaa Valley to the palatial residences of Beit ed Dine and Anjar and, not to forget, its many natural wonders like the caves of Jeita or the modern-day wonders of Beirut city – in less than a week. The beauty of Lebanon is that the landscape changes every hour – you can drive from the beach to the hills to the ski slopes in one hour’s time!
This is a country that is steeped in history but, equally, it is soaked in modern times. What Lebanon, in fact, offers you is a slice of Europe. Hailed as one of the most attractive cites in the eastern Mediterranean, the Lebanese capital is being reconstructed to ensure that the 21st century city retains its Levantine flavour. By all accounts, Beirut is fast regaining its reputation as the ‘Paris of the Middle East’ as both business and tourism are rapidly picking up.
Figures released by the Tourism Ministry last month show that the number of foreigners arriving in the country during the first five months of this year alone are up 50 per cent over the same period last year. 'We are actively promoting our many international festivals in the region and working with hotels and airlines to see that we provide value-for-money to visitors to our country,' Tourism Minister Dr Ali Hussein Abdallah told TTN. 'Once somebody visits Lebanon, he is sure to keep coming back.'
Some credit this to the year-long advertising campaign, Rediscover Lebanon, whose 90-second spots began running in February on CNN, but director-general of the Tourism Ministry, Nada Sardouq, pooh-poohed the suggestion. 'The campaign is not tourist oriented but aimed at business and conferences,' she pointed out. 'It’s about getting Europeans and Americans to reconsider what the reality of Lebanon is.' Sardouq cited instead efforts taken by the Tourism Ministry to encourage visits from foreign travel agents and journalists as well as participation in joint ventures with the private sector for the growth in visitors. The fact that new airlines like Air Arabia are flying to Beirut (the low-cost carrier has daily flights) at highly-competitive rates has helped matters further.
That Lebanon is back as a top tourist destination is clear from the fact that most hotels like Beirut Marriott Hotel are almost a 100-per-cent booked this summer. 'Last summer was great, but this year we are going to exceed all expectations,' said Nada Alameddine, director of sales and marketing. She pointed out that this trend started sometime back with people from GCC preferring to stay closer home. 'Those who came to Lebanon saw for themselves how much the country had to offer and also that the country was entirely safe,' she said. 'Not only are a lot of those people returning but, thanks to mouth-to-mouth publicity, they have helped promote Lebanon to the world and attract more visitors.'
That’s good news for the country as, according to the Audi Quarterly Economic Report for the first quarter of 2004, the tourist sector has proven to be one of the most resilient sectors in the Lebanese economy. And, with time, things can only get better.