Hope runs high in war-devastated Lebanon

After a bleak summer and extensive losses, Lebanon’s tourism economy is upbeat with distributors doing all they can to promote the country, says RAGHDA MUGHARBIL
Lebanon will be present at the WTM 2006

LEBANON’S tourism industry, which suffered colossal economical losses in this summer’s war, is striving to make a come back, with many distributors upbeat about forthcoming opportunities to promote their country – such as the World Travel Market.

“The war led to 100 percent of lost business for everyone in the tourism sector,” explained Nada Sardouk, director general at the Lebanese ministry of tourism, which is working closely with the private sector to get the industry moving. “We are trying to show that Lebanon is stable and will be at WTM.”
The ministry is also preparing to host the WTO (World Tourism Organization) this December with a regional conference on safety in tourism on December 5. “We hope this coming holiday season will make up for lost revenue with the tourists – who will hopefully be flocking in,” said Sardouk.
The challenges ahead are enormous, however. Hajj Ali Nehme, owner of Amigo, a tour operator located in Beirut’s southern suburbs, saw Israeli war planes shatter his newly established business. “Business is very slow, it’s like the war took us back 20 years,” he said. “I was working on an IATA certification before the war, now I have no plans to continue the paper work.” He has now paid $200,000 of his own money to restart company operations. Similarly affected is nature tourism operator Alan Gabriel, of Exit to Nature, who lost 90 per cent of his business – the going is slow, he said, and he stays busy with small business activities like hiking or mountain climbing.
Also facing a challenge to restore business are major hotels like the Beirut Marriott Hotel. “Business at the Marriott is slow like the city itself. Demand is sluggish,” said Nada Alamedine, director of sales and marketing . The Marriott, which closed its doors during the incursion on Lebanon, opened again in September. Business did pick up a bit, but slowed again during Ramadan and it’s a gloomy outlook for the last two months of 2006. “We don’t see anything from now until the end of the year,” said Alamedine. However, the hotel continues to participate in tradeshows that foremost promote the country and then the hotel.
Perhaps surprisingly, over at Middle Eastern Airlines, business is back to ‘normal’, said Rima Mikkawi, head of public relations at MEA. “We are on a winter schedule with 100 flights per week and they’re fully booked, especially from the Gulf and Europe." Despite the good news, direct and in-direct losses were estimated at $45 million, partly due to the airline having to land in Jordan, which in turn inflicted an additional expenditure of 30 per cent for fuel, main-tenance and landing, charges that MEA did not pass on to customers, said Mikkawi.
But nobody has given up hope. The spirit of moving on and getting ‘back on track’ and not losing faith in a country that has so many times endured the worst of disasters is palpable, and the industry in general seems to be working day and night on promoting Lebanon as a tourist destination once again. “We believe peace is back,” said Edward Mouffrej at local tour operator Nakhal. “We were expecting massive business this summer, but the war changed that. But our business is tourism and it’s time to restart.” Mouffrej is simply picking up where his company left off before the war and expects an increase in bookings after Ramadan.
Realizing a total comeback in tourism is nearly impossible in a short time, he is nevertheless going all out, and will be at WTM. Nakhal has also put out a price list of special hotel rates to all tour operators outside the country aimed at foreign tourists
From past lessons, Lebanon has always found a way back onto the tourism destination map. This time is no different. “We hope that this will be the last challenge facing Lebanon,” said the Marriott’s Alamedine.