Where? When? How?

With the war in Lebanon, KEITH J FERNANDEZ talks to a cross-section of the tourism industry to examine its impact

AT the beginning of July, Lebanon was expecting its best summer ever – peak season in a year that was estimated to bring in a record 1.6 million tourists, following a growth of 52 per cent over the first five months of the year.

“As per the Central Bank estimate, a real GDP growth of four to five per cent was predicted, as a result of a strong tourism industry,” says Josef Kufer, general manager of the Mövenpick Hotel & Resort Beirut, which has remained operational following the Israeli attacks and the ensuing war. With its runway out of commission, the Rafic Hariri International Airport is indefinitely closed and all flights into the country suspended. Roads, bridges and ports have been severely damaged and any tourists or Lebanese expatriates in the country have either already left via Syria and Cyprus – or are desperately trying to, at the time of going to press.
Already, the Lebanese government is putting the damage in excess of $2 billion, according to Fadhel Al Shalak, head of the Council for Development and Reconstruction, who was speaking at an international crisis conference in Rome at the end of July. He said Lebanon’s infrastructure had been hit by $721 million in damage, housing and businesses another $953 million, and the industrial sector had suffered losses of $180 million.
While hotels in downtown Beirut have seen occupancy rates dive from near capacity to 40 per cent, others, like the Hazmieh Rotana in the south, have been so badly affected that neither can staff make it to work, nor are occupancy levels of any significance, says Rotana Hotels vice-president, sales and marketing, Daniel Hajjar, who, like other Lebanese expatriates wears a fixed smile that belies the fact they’re worried about family back in cedar country.
“Every advance booking for Lebanon has been cancelled and there have been no fresh bookings. Lebanon was a favourite last-minute short-holiday destination, especially for Gulf Arabs,” says Zaeem Gama, sales and marketing manager (GCC), Kanoo Holidays.
It’s the travel distributors in Lebanon who’ve been worst hit, says Waleed Challita, general manager, Middle Side Services Travel & Tourism, and a board member of the Association of Travel & Tourist Agents in Lebanon (ATTAL). “We expected tourism to generate something like $5 billion, and a lot of agents and tour operators made an extra investment, rented more office space and expanded operations in a bid to cater to the projected increase in demand. The return on that investment is now zero.”
So how long before they can begin to think about recovering that money? Obviously, a lot depends on how long the war lasts and what its final outcome will be. “It’s too early to judge the impact,” Hajjar tells TTN. “By and large, the real tourist destinations have not been hit, such as beaches, hotels and resorts, and sights in downtown Beirut. Even if the war stops now, nobody will travel immediately, in August, and in September it’s back to school. So the earliest we could perhaps see a short-term recovery is around Eid.”
Challita estimates it will be next summer before any real gains can be made. “Tourism for this year is over,” he says ominously, talking of Shiites who’ve left their homes to camp in schools in Beirut.
Most people TTN spoke to were unanimous that if the country’s governments were to find a lasting solution, tourism would bounce back. “A temporary painkiller is of no use. We need a permanent answer. The world sees the Lebanese as a bunch of terrorists fighting Israel, which we know is not the truth – but that’s the way it is. So much damage has been done to Lebanon’s image in the eyes of the world, that only a permanent peace deal will finally bring lasting business stability. It’s the emotional and psychological recovery in the minds of the tourists that will take longer,” says Hajjar.
Agrees hotelier Gordon Campbell Gray, who’s building one of his luxury boutique properties in Solidere, “Tourists of course will say, there are so many places to go to, why go there? But the show will go on. We’re not going to stop or pull out, maybe we’ll need to increase the marketing budget, but we will not give up on Beirut.”
Certainly, voices like his will soon be welcomed in Lebanon, which will need an influx of billions of dollars to recover, says the Mövenpick’s Kufer. Lebanon has a long story of bouncing back from crisis and wars, but at the moment bankers and economists predict it will be a challenging to lure back investors unless a lasting cease-fire is reached.
Already, the more business-savvy properties are focusing on other markets. “The sales and marketing team at the Moevenpick Beirut are exploring all avenues with particular focus on the press and media, as well as, all non-governmental organizations (NGO). We are exercising rate integrity to not comprise our service level and client satisfaction,” says Kufer.
Naturally, too, other destinations around the region are seeing increased business. Says Kanoo’s Gama, “Tourists are now choosing Egypt, Turkey and Dubai as their short holiday alternatives.” And as TTN goes to press, an industry source rings up: they’re charging $500 a night at a five-star hotel in Syria.