‘We can’t just still and wait’
Lebanon’s tourism sector has taken a slump after last year's July War and this year's political assassinations, yet, Nada Sardouk Ghandour, director general of tourism is working very hard to keep the sector on its feet.
“We're trying to give a bright picture of Lebanon. A view of hope because we’re there for Lebanon and we want the Lebanese and tourists to feel the same,” she told TTN.
During these crucial times, Ghandour is aware that she cannot promote Lebanon as the Switzerland of the Middle East, so she is trying to keep Lebanon in the minds of tourists through advertisements that include sentimental songs of Lebanese heritage and tradition.
“Through nostalgic songs and emotional outcry we are trying to reach the hearts of the Lebanese expatriate hoping they'd come back to Lebanon,” she says.
This July marked an estimated 126,000 tourists according to statistics conducted by the Lebanese Ministry of Tourism. Forty eight thousand tourists were from Arab nations, namely, Iraq, Jordan and Saudi Arabia, another 41,000 were Europeans, around 15,000 were Americans and Canadians, and another 15,000 were Asian.
“This is an all-time low if we were to compare it to the same month last year. In July 2006 we had around 108,000 tourists in just the first ten days of July,” says Ghandour.
In June this year the number of tourists were at a staggeringly low 69,000 which is a 59 per cent decrease of what in was in June 2006. The number of tourists then was at 171,000. “We have to remember that the trouble in the north started at the end of May and the assassination of MP Walid Eido took place in June,” she says.
The hotel industry also showed a decrease in hotel occupancy for the first six months of 2007 with an average of 37 per cent occupancy rate for hotels in Beirut, 15 per cent occupancy in Mount Lebanon, nine per cent for the Bekaa, 30 per cent for the south, and 28 per cent in the north.
A recovery programme has been put in place by the Lebanese Ministry of Tourism that involves giving loans with low interest rates to all hotel industries. The plan will also include lowering electricity bills without costing the government any extra expenses.
“We're working on a comprehensive plan that will involve supporting the hotel and tourism industry around the country, as well as advertising Lebanon by showing solidarity," she explains.
In addition to the recovery plan a new device known as the PDA (Personal Digital Assistants) has been launched in Beirut this July. It is funded by the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) and International Executive Service Corps (IESC). These devices will be given to select tourism establishments such as hotels, tour guides, and travel agents, to loan out to tourists free of charge. The PDA device enables tourists to discover with the help of digital map and multiple search functions, over 11,000 points of interests, including eco-tourism sites, destinations off the beaten path, and their nearby attractions.
Trying to take charge of the tourism industry Ghandour has attended all conferences involving big events in tourism. In April and despite the political deadlock and assassinations, the Lebanese Ministry of Tourism conducted a conference for Arab tourism ministers that many Arab dignitaries attended. The aim of the conference was a show of solidarity for Lebanon and the tourism sector in specific.
“We can't just stand still and wait for things to get better," she explains. "We have to always do something and keep trying."
In May Lebanon's Ministry of Tourism sent a delegation to the Cannes Film Festival to promote all Lebanese directors and helped cover some of their expenses. At the festival there were many French artists who volunteered artwork depicting pictures of Lebanon. On September 27, which has been declared United Nations Tourism Day, the Lebanese Tourism Ministry will be honouring all the women who have worked in the Lebanese tourism sector though out the years.
“We are going to celebrate women in tourism; this is what the UN has chosen as this year’s theme. We are going to give out rewards and CDs showing pictures of Lebanon.
"We should be very optimistic. As fragile as we are, the tourism industry can recover in one week."
This is how Ghandour sees the condition of tourism in a country that has been troubled by war since its creation. "We can work in full power and aggressively because we have the infrastructure, the human resources, the investments, and new projects."