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Expats to bring Lebanon relief in summer wave

Lebanon expects more than 18,000 visitors during the first part of the summer season as tourism shows signs of rebounding.
ANWAR AMRO/AFP via Getty Images

The Lebanese Ministry of Tourism launched a campaign in mid-June to attract Lebanese expats to come to Lebanon during the 2022 summer season. The campaign was dubbed “Ahla Bha Talle,” in reference to a song by late and prominent Lebanese singer Sabah. During the 2021 Christmas season, the ministry launched a similar campaign, “Bi Jnounak Bhebak,” which was inspired by the song of another famous Lebanese singer, Fairuz.

The campaign's posters replaced the billboards of political leaders and parties along the road to Beirut International Airport with images of Lebanese mountains and tourist attractions. In the 1970s, these images were common in the international and Arab media alongside descriptions of Lebanon as the “Switzerland of the East.”

Since 2019 Lebanon, whose economy has traditionally relied heavily on tourism, has been unable to attract international visitors amid ongoing economic and political instability. The collapse of the Lebanese currency, the rise in unemployment and the Beirut port explosion in 2020 are all factors that led the country into an economic decline and an unprecedented devaluation of the currency.

Minister of Tourism Walid Nassar told Al-Monitor, “More surprises will come and be announced in due time as preparations for the tourism season continue. For the past three years, there has been a decline in this sector due to the COVID-19 pandemic and the collapse of the Lebanese economy. In addition to the return of major festivals — such as the Baalbeck International Festival on June 8, the Batroun International Festival on June 9 and the Beiteddine International Festival on June 19 — the ministry will launch for the first time the Beirut Festival. It will be held later this month between the waterfront area and the center of the capital. This will be in addition to supporting and sponsoring smaller festivals in villages and towns. We will announce those dates soon.”

Nassar predicts that “about 1 million people, namely Lebanese expats, will come to Lebanon. According to the ministry's predictions, this influx will secure more than $3 billion for Lebanon if the season succeeds the way we are hoping for. According to the data we have, 75% of the tourists will be Lebanese expats while the other 25% foreigners primarily from Egypt, Jordan, Iraq and the Gulf states.”

The figures provided by Nassar’s office showed that the total number of arrivals to Lebanon during the first quarter of 2022 reached 212,950 registered expats, marking an increase of 155.77% compared to the same period in 2021. Arab arrivals constituted 33.74% of the total arrivals to Lebanon during the first quarter of 2022. Among the most prominent nationalities that visited Lebanon were Iraqis with 40,902 visitors, and Egyptians with 13,566.

European visitors made up 36.93% of the total arrivals to Lebanon during the first quarter of 2022, with around 19,109 French visitors and 12,891 Germans.

Meanwhile, the arrivals from the American continent constituted 16.59% of the total arrivals to Lebanon during the first quarter of 2022. The main nationalities represented were Americans with 18,423 and Canadians with 11,356.

Nassar added, “We have noticed the influx of new nationalities interested in tourism in Lebanon like Indian and Filipino nationals.”

Asked about the ministry’s role in monitoring prices across the country, Nassar clarified, “Prices in general and prices for tourism services in particular are competitive. We have allowed tourist organizations to set their prices directly in dollars in order to help expats and foreigners compare. As for the responsibility of the Ministry of Tourism to control prices, it is advisory, as the ministry issues guiding policies. It endorses current pricing suggestions so that tourists and expatriates have a clear idea of the admission costs.”

Pierre Achkar, president of the Syndicate of Hotels Owners in Lebanon, told Al-Monitor, “According to airlines and travel agents, 110 to 120 planes will land in the Beirut airport from mid-June until the end of September. Each plane will carry 150 people on board, which means that between 16,000 to 18,000 people have confirmed their arrival to Lebanon over the summer.”

Achkar added, “Expats usually stay at their parents' home, so they will not have a strong impact on hotel bookings. However, a large percentage of Iraqi, Egyptian and Jordanian tourists will contribute to bookings in most Beirut hotels. Generally speaking, both expats and foreign tourists will help boost domestic tourism, namely restaurants, resorts and shops. This season will witness the return of Lebanon on the tourism map after a long absence. The Lebanese beach along with the mountains, especially in the Mount Lebanon governorate, will see increased crowds and visitors."

Achkar pointed out, “Tourist facilities do not need offers to lure tourists or expatriates because prices are already low compared to the foreign currency that the tourist will pay, and if the goal we set is achieved and the summer season succeeds, we will completely cover the losses that the tourism sector incurred last year and during the winter season.”

Mohamad Hicham Eltal, owner of the Holiday International Travel office in Beirut, told Al-Monitor, “We now see cars again with special Gulf license plates from Kuwait and the Sultanate of Oman roaming the streets of Beirut and the rest of the mountainous regions. This scene appeared for the last time in 2019.”

He added, “Also, the travel influx to Lebanon is high. As travel agency owners, our monitoring shows a return to high bookings in comparison to previous periods. For example, the car rental market has improved significantly, even though in the first quarter of the season, some expatriates and tourists had not yet arrived. As for the expats in particular, we benefit from their contributions to the car rental and domestic tourism arenas.”

Eltal added, “As for our offers for travel reservations abroad, we do not benefit directly from those. However, it attracts foreign currency to Lebanon, which will support the labor sector and better salaries and offers for employees in Lebanon. The Lebanese people by nature love to travel and explore, but the recent circumstances have prevented them."

Arab tourists followed by other foreigners are usually interested in the mountains of Lebanon. Most of them, according to the Ministry of Tourism and other sources, go to areas located in the Chouf and Aley districts, Broumana, Beit Mery and the neighboring villages in the Matn district and Mount Lebanon district. They also go to Byblos and Beirut is a main destination. The North governorate is less visited, but it receives more than the Southern governorate, where tourism is limited to the coastal cities of Tyre and Sidon.

In the North governorate, the town of Bcharre is famous for its cedar trees and its cold climate during the summer, and foreign and Arab tourists know it as the home of the international writer, poet and painter Gibran Khalil Gibran.

Mayor of Bcharre Freddy Kayrouz,told Al-Monitor, “Tourism is currently shy and limited to domestic tourism. Most tourists who visit the town currently are Iraqi. It is too early to judge the outcome of the season for several reasons, namely that school and university exams are not over yet in Lebanon and some countries. We are not counting on the month of June, but on the months following it. We expect a good turnout for our region, especially since Lebanon has become a very cheap country for foreigners and expats given the currency exchange prices.”

Kayrouz added, “This year, we will not organize the Cedars International Festival, which in previous years attracted big international names such as Shakira and Andrea Bocelli. There will be local festivals involving most villages around Bcharre. This will include a large festival for children. As for restaurants and hotels of the region, they rely on domestic tourism and foreign tourism given the area’s scenic beauty and moderate weather. I think this year we will emerge from the tourism paralysis we have been experiencing over the past three years.”

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