Lebanon’s tourism industry has been in decline since 2011, when war in neighboring Syria broke out, blocking the way for around a quarter of a million visitors, File Photo by Wael Hamzeh / EPA-EFE
BEIRUT, Lebanon, November 16 (UPI) – The Lebanese tourism industry understands that the country, mired in an economic crisis, may not be the most obvious destination at the moment. But a new campaign seeks to tout the huge discounts on offer and “crazy love” for the place.
It’s a move to attract visitors and avoid the collapse of the tourism sector in the middle of the two-year spiral. The strong devaluation of the national currency means that there are great deals to be had on travel.
The campaign “Crazy Love”, or “Even in your madness, I love you” translated from Arabic, was launched this month.
The Lebanese tourism industry has always been a major source of income, reaching $ 9.3 billion in 2010 before the uprisings known as the “Arab Spring”, wars and instability engulfed a number of countries in the world. the region.
Tourism began to decline in 2011 when war broke out in neighboring Syria, blocking the route to around a quarter of a million visitors, mostly from Jordan and the Gulf countries, who came by road each year. With Lebanon in a state of war with its other neighboring country, Israel, Syria was the only road connecting it to the rest of the world.
The tourism industry was hit hard when anti-government protests turned into a popular uprising in October 2019, followed by repeated COVID-19 lockdowns that crippled the country.
Then it got worse.
The August 4, 2020 explosion in the Port of Beirut killed more than 200 people and destroyed entire neighborhoods, including a burgeoning tourist attraction in Mar Mikhail. A severe fuel crisis peaked this summer, plunging the country into darkness and leading to long lines at gas stations.
Moreover, the escalation of the political conflict with Saudi Arabia and some other Gulf countries reached an alarming level at the beginning of the month, when they decided to expel the ambassadors from Lebanon and ban its imports, ordering to their citizens to stay away from Lebanon. Gulf tourists had almost stopped visiting Lebanon for years anyway due to the growing influence of Iranian-backed Hezbollah in the country.
‘What can we do?’
But Lebanon’s dramatic deterioration hasn’t stopped Tourism Minister Walid Nassar from trying to rejuvenate the tourism industry.
“Those who love Lebanon will come anyway … We are counting on that,” Nassar told the UPI in a telephone interview. “What can we do? It’s either we’re not doing anything or we’re trying to do something.”
Visitors to Beirut from Iraq, Jordan, Egypt, Spain, Italy, Greece and Armenia can benefit from a free package until the end of December which includes a ticket of flight, three-night hotel stay, and airport-hotel transportation costs at a total starting price of $ 269 from Egypt and $ 340 from Europe.
These countries were chosen in accordance with an agreement with the Lebanese airline, Middle East Airlines, which offered nearly 80% off its tickets. Hotels and B & Bs also offered very low prices.
“If the 280 flights from the 11 airports in these countries are full, we could reach 40,000 visitors” by the end of December, said Nassar. “We have done everything: to offer all kinds of equipment and low prices … but it is not in our hands.”
Lebanon, he said, needs stability. Its political leaders must agree on reforms and its government must work to restore international confidence in the country and reactivate ties with Arab countries.
The number of visitors to Lebanon increased from 1.9 million in 2019 to 414,000 in 2020, according to figures released by the Ministry of Tourism. The number of visitors from Arab countries increased from 574,352 to 112,248 and those from European countries from 720,000,421 to 177,967 during the same period. Only 6,815 came from Saudi Arabia in 2020, up from 64,270 the previous year.
Nassar said the number of visitors increased from 170% to 180% in 2020-2021.
Pierre Achkar, head of the Lebanese Hotel Association, said tourism revenues fell from $ 9.3 billion in 2010 to $ 3-4 billion in 2018.
“We are negotiating [with the International Monetary Fund] to give us $ 2 billion while we are able to get that amount from tourism, ”Achkar told UPI.
Thousands of jobs lost
The October 2019 uprising, mismanagement of the economic and financial crisis, the COVID-19 pandemic and the explosion at the Port of Beirut which severely damaged 163 hotels and more than 2,000 restaurants contributed to the near collapse of the tourism sector.
Since then, 99% of the country’s 540 hotels have been partially closed, Achkar said. “Those with 100 rooms kept 20 to 30 rooms open. They also had to reduce their staff and the cost of diesel fuel to run their generators… just to keep their businesses going. “
Thousands of hotel and restaurant workers have lost their jobs as a result, industry representatives said.
The biggest blow has been the loss over the years of once-loyal Lebanese tourists from the oil-rich Gulf countries.
Achkar said the conflict with the Gulf countries began with Hezbollah’s intervention in the war in Syria in 2012-13 and escalated with the Iran-backed group’s smear campaigns against the Saudi leadership and its support for the Houthi rebels in the war in Yemen.
“The crisis with the Gulf [countries] destroyed us and slaughtered our tourism, ”he said, adding that Gulf investors have been behind Lebanon’s biggest hotel investments in recent years, including Kempinski Summerland, Four Seasons and Hilton Beirut Habtoor Hotels.
While waiting for Lebanon to be reconciled with the Gulf countries, the new campaign of the Ministry of Tourism appears to be the only hope of reviving tourism and attracting Lebanese from the diaspora, as well as Arab and European tourists carrying hard currency. . One US dollar is trading at nearly 23,000 Lebanese pounds on the parallel market, compared to 1,500 LL for $ 1 in October 2019.
Although Lebanon is no longer the “Pearl of the Middle East” as it was widely regarded before the 1975-90 civil war, it remains an attractive place due to its rich culture, Roman ruins and architecture. Ottoman, its religious sites, its gastronomy, its beautiful mountains and landscapes, modern attractions and Lebanese way of life.
“Even if we lose, we have to keep this business going,” Maud Nakhal, director of the main travel agency Nakhal, established in 1959, told UPI. “We are here to stay and we will fight to stay and never close. “
The agency was hit hard by the pandemic, “even more than the economic crisis”, but continued to organize daily tours inside Lebanon and to welcome “loyal” clients, mainly Lebanese living in Lebanon. outside the country.
“Lebanon has become a cheap destination for foreign tourists. We hope this campaign will attract enough of them, because it is a good opportunity to visit the country with such prices and discounts,” Nakhal said.
A stay at the Bkerzay guest house, an eco-friendly village in the Chouf mountains, offers a healthy restaurant, pottery lessons and hikes.
Located about 25 kilometers from Beirut, Bkerzay is today a favorite destination for many foreigners working in embassies and non-governmental organizations.
Forced to close from March to April due to coronavirus lockdowns and hit by the economic crisis and fuel shortages, Bkerzay reopened but “in a timid manner to continue operating … and maintain our staff of 65”, said declared the chief of operations of the village. , Zeina Salman.
“We have to support them and our project. It is our daily struggle,” Salman told UPI. “This project is something we have done to stay forever. We will continue, no matter what.”