Lebanon is calling all its expats home for the summer. Keen to revive the country’s tourism sector, Walid Nassar, Lebanon’s tourism minister, sent a message to the Lebanese expatriate community – “If you miss Lebanon, visit it this summer.”
While Lebanon’s population is over four million, 16 million Lebanese are said to live abroad.
In June, Nassar announced the launch of the 2022 summer tourism campaign – “Ahla Bhal Talleh” (Welcome to Lebanon) – from Beirut’s Rafic Hariri International Airport. The government did not say how much it would spend on the campaign.
However, not many in Lebanon, one of the smallest countries in Asia, are convinced of the government’s efforts to attract tourists.
Lebanon’s traditional tourism-dependent economy was decimated by the country’s political and economic instability in 2019 as international visitors stayed away from the destination. Covid further exacerbated the crisis and then the Beirut port explosion in 2020.
In 2018, tourist arrivals to the country near the Asian shores of the Mediterranean had reached 1.9 million, while the direct contribution of travel and tourism was estimated at 3.8 billion dollars, accounting for 7 percent of the country’s gross domestic product.
Why is tourism essential to Lebanon?
Posting ads in the media and putting up some posters is not enough, said Abbas Ayoub, a tour guide in Lebanon. “The government may think they are doing their best to promote tourism, unfortunately their best is not enough.”
All we hear is ministers talking, hardly any real work is being done, said Roger Khayrllah, who works at a TVC production company in Lebanon. “The Lebanese people have never counted on their government for support – it’s all about the private sector taking over.”
However, almost everyone agreed that reviving the tourism sector is an effective way to revive the country’s economy and the immigrant community can contribute a lot to this.
About 1.2 million tourists are expected to visit Lebanon this summer. In June, Lebanon welcomed 334,000 tourists, Lebanese expatriates accounting for 75 percent of the total. The Minister of Tourism has said that he expects income from tourism to be around 3.5 billion dollars during the summer season.
During the economic crisis last year, the Lebanese expatriate population even sent medical and essential supplies home to family members after commercial airlines increased baggage allowances for flights to Lebanon.
Noting that there has been a steady flow of Lebanese expats coming to the country recently, Viviane Nasr, founder and CEO of SAVI SAL, the official operator of CitySightseeing Beirut, said of their hop-on-hop bus tours -off, 80 percent of their clientele are Lebanese immigrants, while only 10 percent are locals and 10 percent are foreign tourists.
Only the tourism sector can contribute to the Lebanese economy, there is nothing else to fall back on, immigrants are a good resource for the country’s tourism sector, Nasr said. “After the explosion of Beirut and the economic collapse, it would not be too much of a stretch to say that there would be no Lebanon without the population of Lebanese immigrants.”
The best wine, so far
After two years of Covid, many Lebanese expatriates have visited the country recently bringing with them fresh dollars and euros to spend in Lebanon while they enjoy their summer vacation, noted Viana Hassan, a lecturer at the Lebanese University.
“This year the summer season will be the best. All the hotels and restaurants are fully booked even though the prices are high,” said Hassan, who is actively involved in academic and research work in tourism in Lebanon.
Flights and hotels are almost fully booked until September and there are almost no rooms available, especially in beach hotels, said Yehia El Hajj, founder of The Vibes World. “We look forward to a great season for the travel and hospitality industry this summer.”
The packed hotels are certainly a great sign for a country where hundreds of tourist establishments were closed, and some laid off, after the onslaught of Covid. The unprecedented devaluation of the Lebanese currency and rising unemployment further contributed to the country’s economic decline.
Tourism in Lebanon has always been closely linked to social progress, especially when it comes to strengthening communities and preserving local heritage. Tourism is also one of the main drivers of job creation across the country.
“In Lebanon, tourism is the industry that we love and care about its sustainability, because it brings out the best in people, changes the perspective and opens the doors for the exchange of culture, knowledge and experiences”, said Haxhi.
Nasr is also happy that things are now back on track and she is on her way to making a profit. “The Lebanese expat community is returning to Lebanon to visit friends and family and then they are also getting high value for their dollars and euros as the Lebanese pound has been.
Challenges for tourism promotion
To attract tourists to a destination, it is very important to promote it in the international market. However, Lebanon does not have the money to constantly promote itself as a tourist destination, Hajji noted.
Even if Lebanon continues to promote tourism, the country’s unstable political situation, economic crisis, hyperinflation and poor infrastructure act as major obstacles to the country’s tourism prospects, noted guide Ayoub.
“The government should work to make airline tickets more affordable, improve infrastructure in the country and work to establish better relations with the Gulf countries,” Ayoub added.
While promoting the destination, it is also essential that tourists know that Lebanon is a safe place, even for solo female travelers, Khayrllah said. “The hardest part is portraying safety, it’s not something that can be advertised, travelers have to be there to experience it.”
An effective tourism board office with branches in some of the main source markets is another effective way to promote tourism, Haxhi thought. “This is a very important step to appoint representatives of tourism all over the world. I hope the government will properly support the promotion of tourism in this way.”