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Lebanon campaigns to revive tourism amid economic crisis

Several campaigns such as the "Give Lebanon a Break" one launched by the Lebanese newspaper An-Nahar sparked widespread criticism from the Lebanese, who believe it has nothing to do with their reality and the economic collapse of the country.
A city sightseeing bus is pictured parked outside Beirut's landmark Mohammad al-Amin mosque on May 20, 2019.

BEIRUT — The Lebanese newspaper An-Nahar, in cooperation with Lebanon’s Economic and Social Council, launched Nov. 30 the #GiveLebanonABreak campaign, calling on Lebanese officials to stop their political bickering and give the Lebanese people a break in December to spend the holidays in peace.

However, this campaign has been widely criticized.

The campaign organizers say that its goal is to allow the Lebanese to catch their breath, away from the political clashes and the tense sectarian rhetoric, in light of the high cost of living, the decline in business and production, the increase in poverty and the exacerbation of various crises.      

Faraj Obaji, writer and journalist with An-Nahar, told Al-Monitor, “We wanted to have some sort of calm and stop the political bickering that is stressing everyone out.”

He said, “We came up with this idea because we felt Lebanon needed to be given a break; all sectors, professions and individuals need a break to be able to work. Politicians need to cut down on statements and focus more on serving the country’s interest and saving it from the overwhelming economic crisis.”

Artists, journalists and actors participated in the campaign, some of whom appeared in the campaign's promotional video, including Al-Nahar's Editor-in-Chief Nayla Tueni. They adopted the "time out" sign and thousands of people shared the video online.

The participants stressed the need to allow the Lebanese, especially the expatriates, to spend the holidays with family and friends, allow merchants and industrialists to work and produce more, and for the tourism movement to return this month, so life flourishes again in Lebanon.

Some Lebanese were pleased with the campaign, sharing the promo video and using the hashtag, demanding a holiday “break.”

However, many criticized it, as they believed it was a naive and superficial campaign. Some even said it only targeted well-off families that have the luxury of overcoming the crises, and they have become very few in Lebanon.

The backlash stems from the dire reality and the frightening crisis that the Lebanese are experiencing, as the majority of the population lives in extreme poverty, to the extent that some of them are unable to secure basic needs, not to mention those who can no longer afford to put food on the table or warm their homes due to the high cost of fuel.

Member of parliament Assem Araji, head of the parliamentary Health Committee, had stated Nov. 19 that 70% of the Lebanese were unable to secure the cost of their medical treatment.

Hana Saad, who works in a hospital in Lebanon, told Al-Monitor, “The campaign is good, and perhaps we can say that it is beautiful as it calls for living in peace during the holidays.” At the same time, she wondered, “Why a break for one month? Are we not allowed to have a break for an entire year without any clashes?”

Researcher and political activist Nizar Ghanem told Al-Monitor, “I don’t understand — who is the campaign addressing? The main problem in Lebanon is how the wealthy elite have taken control of the state as a whole, and in order to save itself it decided to take the entire country hostage and make everyone pay.”

Obaji noted, “Some people do not understand the purpose of the campaign. The main goal is to achieve calm and live in peace, and this is the best gift that the Lebanese could receive at the moment. It’s not about celebrating the holidays.”

On Nov. 4, the Ministry of Tourism launched the “winter tourism package,” bearing the slogan "Crazy Love" to stimulate tourism in Lebanon in cooperation with travel companies, aimed at attracting expatriates and tourists in the winter season, by providing packages that include the cost of the hotel, tickets, and so on, at reduced prices.

The secretary-general of the Federation of Tourist Syndicates, Jean Beiruti, told Al-Monitor, “The campaign, which lasted for one month, was good, but it did not achieve the desired results.”

He said, “I personally believe the campaign was not marketed enough abroad; it was too short and did not get a lot of exposure. But we can expect better results if it were launched again and was well promoted, especially since the prices of Middle East Airlines tickets were very encouraging for once.”

Beiruti noted, “We do not have a clear idea about the tourist movement in Lebanon during the holidays yet. Many resort to last-minute bookings given the unstable situation in the country.”

But Ghanem said, “Such campaigns are inconsistent with the current reality in Lebanon. We have no electricity; we lack the minimum requirements of life. Why would tourists want to come to Lebanon? The solution is to carry out structural reforms that restore the sovereignty of the state and improve the financial situation.”

These initiatives come at a time when Lebanon is struggling under an unprecedented economic and political collapse. Meanwhile, the government is disrupted as the Amal movement and Hezbollah are refraining from attending Cabinet sessions until Tarek Bitar, the judge leading the investigation into the devastating Beirut port blast, is removed, accusing him of political bias.

Despite the challenges, and in light of all the ongoing campaigns on a national level, and the advertisements by hotels, restaurants and local tourism places, the airport seems to be busy with almost full flights to Lebanon. 

Over the past few days, thousands of Lebanese and foreigners flew in, while others are planning to spend their holidays in Lebanon in the next few weeks.

Reem Selim, an Egyptian economic researcher who visited Lebanon Dec. 5 to attend a research conference at the American University of Beirut, told Al-Monitor, “I visited many tourist areas in Lebanon, including Raouche and Harissa, and I went on the Telepherique [in Jounieh]. I was able to buy gifts and food for relatively cheap prices.”

Selim said, “I was very excited to come to Lebanon despite the difficult conditions. Lebanon is a tourist country par excellence, and the Arab tourist is able to adapt to the prevailing crises quickly.”

Ziad Alam, a young Lebanese man who went to the Ivory Coast two years ago for work, told Al-Monitor, “I arrived Dec. 22. Whenever I get the chance I come to Lebanon and I will continue to do so even with no electricity, no safety or the minimum requirements of life.”

Alam noted, “I have to be here for my family and friends, given the horrific conditions they are experiencing.”

Meanwhile, Amani Zeaiter, a Lebanese woman who lives in Belgium, told Al-Monitor via WhatsApp, “I always feel that I need to go back to the home I was raised in. I arrived Dec. 24 to spend the holidays with my family.”

Zeaiter stressed, “Given the current situation, many people are asking me to bring medicines and goods that are no longer available in Lebanon, so that’s another reason why I’m visiting.”

Even if it’s a sliver of hope, the attachment that the Lebanese have for Lebanon and the resilience they share is somehow enough to believe that things could still take a turn for the better.

The head of Beirut International Airport, Fadi al-Hassan, told Al-Monitor, "The number of arrivals to Lebanon during the holidays is more than excellent. Since the beginning of this month and until today [Dec. 23] 180,000 passengers have arrived in Lebanon, which is the same number that was recorded in 2019, i.e., before the coronavirus pandemic.”

He said, "Many visitors fly in from Dubai, Iraq and European countries, and the flights from and to Istanbul [transit hub] are full."

Hassan stressed that the numbers exceeded expectations, noting, "We did not expect these [high] numbers, in light of the new [coronavirus] mutation and the unprecedented economic and living situation in Lebanon."

He said he hopes that this surge in visitors would reflect positively on the country, with the hard currency they are spending in Lebanon.