Lebanon eyeing expats to compensate loss in Arab tourism
Beirut - Last year, it was the garbage crisis that left Beirut’s streets littered with mounds of waste. The year before, it was the onset of a political crisis that has left the country without a president for two years — so far. In 2016, a travel ban imposed by Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries is expected to keep Arab and foreign tourists away from Lebanon’s summer attractions.
Lebanon, however, is pinning hopes on its large expatriate community and the millions of descendants of Lebanese migrants to revive its hard-hit tourism industry.
“Expatriates’ tourism is the reservoir that we are planning to tap,” said Minister of Tourism Michel Pharaon.
“There are some 10 million people to tap into under the programme that calls on the obligation of every descendant of Lebanese migrants to visit Lebanon at least once in their lifetime. It is a programme for decades to come,” Pharaon said.
A website was created for migrants to register with if they are travelling to Lebanon for the first time.
“All the information they need to facilitate their first visit will be available (on the website),” Pharaon said. “They will be offered special packages with very special prices and a warm welcome like a new bride.”
The people Pharaon is hoping to attract to their ancestors’ homeland differ from the hundreds of thousands of expatriated Lebanese who work in GCC countries and Africa and who regularly spend the summer in Lebanon.
Lebanese citizens and GCC nationals represent the majority of passenger arrivals to Lebanon. However, visits by GCC nationals have decreased since 2011 due to security concerns linked to the Syrian conflict and the disruption of the overland route across Syria that travellers by land utilised to reach Lebanon.
According to Moody’s Investors Service, citizens from Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, Qatar and Bahrain accounted for 1.6% of total arrivals to Lebanon in 2015. The number of arrivals from the five countries had declined 55% since 2011.
Pharaon, however, said he is hopeful that some GCC visitors would show up in Lebanon this summer, though their countries are not ready to formally lift travel bans.
“The Saudi ambassador told me that they do not forbid their citizens to go to Lebanon but they are more on the cautioning mode,” Pharaon said. “He advises that Lebanon focuses on the security issue because many have security concerns. This does not mean that the effect of this crisis will not be felt this summer.”
He said in 2009 and 2010 Lebanon saw ““very good” tourism activity but there was a 40% drop from 2011-14.
“It was a huge crisis for the tourism sector,” Pharaon said.
Tourist activity picked up again after 2014 as a result of “an internal and external consensus to keep Lebanon at bay from the spillover from the conflict in Syria. “It was agreed that Lebanon will not be a ‘land of struggle’ but a ‘land of oxygen’ or a breathing ground (in the region),” the minister pointed out.
The emergence of a new unity government and the successful implementation of a security plan in the northern city of Tripoli, eastern Bekaa valley, ended clashes between supporters of opposite sides of the Syrian conflict and raised hopes of more stability and more tourists.
“This (security agreement) permitted us to get out of the unstable situation we had until 2013,” Pharaon said. “While having a security umbrella on Lebanon, I knew that there was a way to re-energise tourism and this is what happened.”
In 2014, the Tourism Ministry launched a large campaign under the slogan Live Love Lebanon. “This resulted in a recovery of 18% in 2014 and of 12% in 2015,” Pharaon noted.
However, the 2015 season was severely hit by the garbage collection crisis, which reached its peak in the middle of the summer. “It was disastrous in terms of image and in terms of cancellations,” the minister said. “Worse than this, we could not market Lebanon at all although there were a hundred festivals across the country, especially in the mountains.”
For the past year-and-a-half Lebanon has been focused on promoting rural and eco-tourism, a trend that is gaining popularity and attracting visitors from inside and outside Lebanon. “There are a hundred guest houses in the various Lebanese regions now including farmhouses, eco-lodges and old houses. Rural tourism accounts for some 7% of the tourism activity at present, but with the work that we are doing it can easily reach 20%,” Pharaon said.
In a region destabilised by conflicts and rebellions, Lebanon is a good and secure tourist destination. “Tourists just love it when they come to Lebanon. They are cautious in the beginning but, once they get here, they are really happy,” he added.