Lebanon’s Tourism Ministry woos Arab travelers

Upcoming television campaign seeks to reassure Gulf tourists

By Will Rasmussen

BEIRUT: Lebanon is a place where diverse religious communities mingle in harmony, enjoying long, leisurely summer evenings at open-air restaurants along charming cobbled boulevards.

That, at least, is the Tourism Ministry’s message to the Gulf, to be aired in 30-second television advertisements in a new promotional campaign beginning next week.

Long focused on luring Europeans to Lebanon’s beaches and mountains, the Tourism Ministry is now looking eastward, worried that news of bombings and civil strife might deter deep-pocketed Gulf Arabs from visiting Lebanon this summer.

“Sure we’re worried,” said Pierre Achkar, the president of the Lebanese Hotel Association and an adviser to the Tourism Ministry. “Arab tourism is not only about tourism. They are buying land and apartments. They are buying cars, and shopping. They are investing in multiple projects, such as Solidere.”

Ads promoting Lebanon will begin running next week on Arab television stations such as Al-Jazeera, Saudi-based MBC, and Al-Arabiyya.

“We have a strong message to the Arab world that even though we had this tragic catastrophe we are safe and we have all the important services and products to satisfy all nationalities,” Lebanon’s Tourism Ministry director Nada Sardouk told The Daily Star. “We are going to show our diversity and the modernity of the service here.”

The ministry, as well as almost every retailer, tour guide, and hotelier, are crossing their fingers that Saudi and Gulf nationals will once again descend en masse to Lebanon and breathe new life into an economy hard hit by bomb attacks and political turmoil.

Last year was a record-setter for tourism, which broke the 1 million-visitor mark for the first time in Lebanon’s post-war era.

The Tourism Ministry estimates that Arab tourists stay for an average of 15 to 20 days – longer than the average European – and spend about $6,000 to $8,000 per person per stay excluding hotel and plane tickets.

Nearly half a million people visited Lebanon from the Gulf last summer, snapping up summer homes in Aley and Bhamdoun, plunking down millions for yachts, investing in real estate, and keeping downtown restaurants buzzing until well past midnight.

There is good reason, though, to worry that this summer won’t match the last one.

Tourism figures – from both Europe and the Gulf – took a nosedive after the February 14 assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, and tour guides say bookings from the Gulf have dropped for the summer.

“It’s gone down about 15 percent,” said Hadem Halaby of Halaby Travel Agency, which gets about 60 percent of its business from Gulf tourists booking hotels in Lebanon. “They don’t give any reason. They just cancel. It’s natural because of the situation.”

Other travel agents, however, say tourism in Lebanon may get a boost this summer for unlikely reasons: terrorism and natural disasters in other countries.

“There are three main destinations for Arab tourists: the Far East, Egypt, and Lebanon,” said Guenady Ragi, owner of Nadia Travel and Tourism, which is based in Beirut but has a branch in Saudi Arabia. “Since the tsunami in Asia and the terrorist attacks in Egypt attention is refocused on Lebanon.”

Ragi, who gets 80 percent of his business from the Gulf, said his company was hit by a 90 percent cancellation rate after Hariri’s murder but is starting to pick up now.

“About half of the cancellations have reconfirmed,” he said. “The summer has now become better than we expected immediately after February 14.”

Achkar said many of the Gulf tourists are waiting to make their travel decisions until after the elections, scheduled to begin in less than two weeks.

“If we have stability we will recover very quickly,” he said. “We hope that from now to July 15 we won’t have any accidents,” he said.