Lebanon sees tourism rebound despite upheaval in the region
Beirut - After years of downturn following the 2011 outbreak of the war in Syria, Beirut’s tourist and entertainment hubs are bustling again. Hotel occupancy rates are rising and the number of properties listed on Airbnb, an online marketplace for lodging and rentals, has almost tripled in two years, signalling a rebound in Lebanon’s tourism industry.
The bounce is due in no small part to the misfortunes of Lebanon’s Middle East neighbours, engulfed by wars, chaos and political upheaval. While neighbouring Syria and Iraq burn, the Lebanese tourism industry is looking — cautiously but optimistically — at the promise of a new beginning.
Beirut has witnessed an Airbnb boom since 2015, with listed properties on the online hospitality service increasing from more than 300 to almost 900 listings, said a report by AirDNA, a website offering data on Airbnb services worldwide. Hamra, Ashrafieh and Mar Mikhael are among the main districts in Beirut for Airbnb properties.
Sarah Berjaoui, director of Ouda w Dar, which manages several Airbnb properties, said demand for properties was increasing through the online platform.
“Airbnb is becoming a popular trend everywhere in the world. It has been booming for the past three to four years and was bound to happen in Beirut for sure… Obviously, Lebanon is a country that always follows the trend,” Berjaoui said.
Airbnb clientele in Lebanon are both Lebanese expatriates and foreign tourists. “It is for sure cheaper than hotels and very convenient for large families. Moreover, Airbnb properties are in the best locations,” Berjaoui said.
Airbnb is an online community marketplace that connects locals with travellers and tourists wishing to rent short- or long-term lodging. With awareness of the online platform and demand increasing, properties listed on Airbnb are expected to rise, not only in Beirut, but elsewhere in Lebanon, Berjaoui said.
“We get people approaching us with properties all over Lebanon and we are very happy to manage them. There is a lot of motion happening,” she said. “The occupancy rate for the summer is expected to reach up to 85% but Lebanon is unpredictable and if the situation turns bad, demand will inevitably drop.”
The AirDNA study said empty apartments available for rent account for 55% of properties listed, private rooms within apartments another 42% and shared rooms 3%. The average daily price for a shared room is $12, a private room $31, a studio $51, for one bedroom $57 and for four bedrooms $90.
Four years ago, Lebanon seemed to be losing its grip on its internal security, with the spectre of war spilling over from Syria a concern. However, with the country’s security reinforced, tourism has risen. A series of suicide bombings has been contained and militants have been pushed back, to a large extent, across the border with Syria.
On the political level, Lebanon’s divided politicians have come together for several important steps, including appointing a head of state after a two-year presidential vacuum, forming a government and agreeing to a law governing general elections, which have been delayed since 2013. Authorities also beat back popular unrest over corruption and a lack of accountability and restarted rubbish collection services in Beirut.
Hotel occupancy in Lebanon is up 25% compared to the same period last year, said Pierre Ashkar, president of the national hotel owners’ syndicate, reaching 65% this summer.
Passenger arrivals at Beirut’s airport outnumbered departures by about 24,000 during the recent Eid al-Fitr holiday, compared to about 19,000 last year, statistics from the Civil Aviation Authority indicated.
Beirut’s landmark Hamra Street is bustling with Arab and foreign holidaymakers.
“Really, us Iraqis, we thank you and we are always lucky to be among the Lebanese people,” said veterinarian and Basra native Ali Abdul Kareem, 24, who was spotted smoking a water pipe with three companions at a restaurant off Hamra Street.
He said it was his first time visiting Lebanon, breaking a string of successive vacations in Iran and the United Arab Emirates. “God willing, this won’t be the only time we come to Beirut and Lebanon,” he said.
Industry veterans know that profits are ephemeral, especially in an environment as uncertain as Lebanon’s. There are daily reports of security operations in the country’s lawless Bekaa Valley and of personal disputes around the country that escalate into shootings. The hardship that sparked the unrest of 2015 — nationwide shortages of water and electricity, a collapse in the rubbish collection services, a scarcity of good jobs — continue to fester.
“If we were to say, ‘What do we aspire to and what are we capable of’ in light of what’s happening in Egypt, Turkey and Arab countries, and in France and Europe because of the terrorism we should be doing much better,” said Ashkar.
Berjaoui said: “There is a capability to offer a huge Airbnb market in Lebanon but it all depends on the situation and the tourism movement.”