BEIRUT – Lebanese take special pride in their hospitality. But as tourists worldwide are planning penny-wise summer holidays, many argue that Lebanon’s inadequate low-cost tourism infrastructure may be limiting the country’s capacity to welcome middle-class tourists.
“If you look at the last couple of years, you had high growth rates. The industry saw they should focus on luxury tourism,” says analyst Amir Girgis, an economist with the London-based World Travel & Tourism Council.
But tourists are “more money conscious” following the global financial crisis. As a result, says Girgis, the focus on luxury tourism might be changing “because if you stick to that framework, you might lose out.”
Lebanon’s tourist industry, and more generally that of the Middle East, has for years geared its efforts toward attracting high-rolling travelers, building posh hotels for the affluent – most of which were Gulf tourists.
Luxury accommodations still account for most of the country’s 300 hotels. But some argue that the industry is ill equipped to the needs of the frugal traveler.
Talal, a hostel near the port of Beirut, provides a case in point. The institution has been “almost fully booked since it opened nine years ago,” says Wissam Aboultaif, one of the managers.
Wild Discovery, a leading travel and tourism provider based in Beirut and affiliated to Johnny R. Saade Holdings, is among the Lebanese companies that has advocated that the supply of three-stars hotels and of regional lodgings should be increased throughout the country.
“We have always campaigned for a structure of three-star hotels in Lebanon. The market mainly consists of four and five-star hotels. All year round Lebanon needs to have tourists not only spending $500 a night for a room, but other vacationers spending less” says Johnny Modawar, the company’s spokesperson.
But a challenge confronts those who share Modawar’s view.”The image of Lebanon is that it is an expensive tourism destination,” he said.
Nada al-Sardook, director general at the Tourism Ministry, admits that the lower end of the spectrum of tourists is not being serviced to its maximum capacity by the infrastructure currently available. “Lebanon must not be only a high-end destination,” she says. “It is a destination for all … We should have a supply adapted to all budgets.”
The Tourism Ministry is increasingly working to open the way to the growing market. Two projects it recently launched, the Lebanese Mountain Trail – a patch of hiking trails in Lebanon’s wilderness and rural areas, and the DHIAFEE Program – a network which presents tourists with lodging options off Beirut’s beaten track, are expected to bring tourism to the less-commonly explored corners of the country.
The recent increase of low-cost regional flights to Beirut is also arguably bringing Lebanon more tourists with an appetite for reasonably priced tourism.
The low-cost carrier flydubai, which opened a Dubai-Beirut route earlier this month, is the latest of seven low-cost carriers said to be boosting Lebanon’s low-cost tourism sector.
While much of the clientele of the low-cost carriers with a route to Beirut is undoubtedly composed of Lebanese expatriates working in the Gulf, a sizeable portion is foreign and comes for a weekend tourism escapade, according to Modawar. “I think Lebanon has much to win from this weekend tourism coming from the Middle East,” he says.
Furthermore, enhancing the offer for a more affordable tourism – without compromising quality – could allow the tourism industry to tap more deeply into the market of European tourists, he says.
Marwa Rizk Jaber, the managing director and owner of the boutique travel agency U Travel in Beirut, thinks it is Lebanon’s recent instability that has kept the industry from booming. “The citizens of European countries are very much affected by the media coverage on Lebanon and by the warnings of their governments not to visit Lebanon as soon as any security incident occurs,” she says, predicting that “Europeans will start to come in large numbers” when the situation calms down.
This outcome may be imminent. The numbers of foreigners traveling to Lebanon are surging again since they sank abruptly in 2006 following the military conflict that affected parts of the country.
In 2008, the total number of foreigners entering the country was 31 percent higher than the previous year according to Tourism Ministry figures. This year, 57 percent more foreigners entered Lebanon between January and April 2009 than during the same period in 2008.
Furthermore, international hotel groups such as Accor and Rotana have recently announced plans to launch their budget brands in the Middle East, but have made no concrete plans to expand in Lebanon for the time being.
The Tourism Ministry and the private sector now need to develop a common marketing strategy, says Jaber. “How does the government want to position Lebanon, is the Monaco or the Switzerland of the Middle-East, or more like the Turkey or Cyprus where you have all kinds of tourism from low cost to luxury?” she asks, rhetorically. “I think the best option is to have the Cyprus model with specific areas for low-cost tourism.”