Lebanon Tourism Suffers Amid Regional Instability

Article Summary
As the war in neighboring Syria continues and the world awaits a potential US-led military strike, the tourism sector is Lebanon has been hit hard.

Losses incurred by the tourism sector are increasing month after month, to the point where merely reminding people that “2,167,989 tourists came to Lebanon in 2010,” engenders incredulous looks by many, and saying that “Beirut was safer than New York, Paris and London” during that year, becomes a form of wishful thinking.

While it is now certain that, amid the increasingly booming beat of war drums, the sector will lose fall season tourists as it lost those of summer, data obtained by As-Safir points to 753,786 tourists coming to Lebanon in the first seven months of this year. This is 572,215 individuals — or 43.15% — fewer than the 1,326,001 visitors who visited the country in the same period of 2010.

Furthermore, the Department of Research and Documentation at the Ministry of Tourism indicated that the decline in visitors up until the month of July reached 13.52% when compared to the same period of 2012 (when the number of tourists was 871,720), and 24.15% when compared to 2011 (when the number of tourists was 993,867).

Faced with this “catastrophic decline,” the impact of the prevailing security instability becomes evident upon all economic sectors in general, and on the tourism sector in particular. According to statistics obtained by As-Safir, the decline in tourism revenues will exceed $4 billion this year, if compared to 2010, when that revenue equaled approximately $8 billion.

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From bad to worse

The state of tourism in the country can be summarized by what the president of the Union of Tourism Institutions and head of the Hotel Owners Association in Lebanon, Pierre Ashkar, and the secretary-general of the Union of Tourism Institutions and chairman of the Syndicate of Maritime Firms, Jean Beiruty, said: “It is going from bad to worse, and from challenging to extremely difficult.” They also affirmed that “the situation is tragic, and we have lost a summer season on which we wagered to recuperate the losses suffered by the sector for the past two years.”

“After sampling data from around 40 hotels in Beirut and outlying regions, we found that sector revenues declined between 35-40% when compared to 2012, and 54% when compared to 2010,” said Askhar.

As a result, Ashkar revealed that “the sector sacked more than 70% of its seasonal workers, approximately 14,000 people, most of whom are college and university students. Furthermore, non-seasonal hotels have, so far, let go 25% of their employees, or approximately 5,000 workers.”

In this context, As-Safir learned that “about 180 restaurants located in summer resort areas were unable to resume business this summer season; 60% of their employees being students.”

Hotels on the verge of closing

“All of the sector’s institutions were operating at 30-60% less capacity, with whole floors in many hotels, restaurants and other tourist destinations being closed off,” Ashkar said. He added that “dozens of hotels in the Mount Lebanon region were threatened with closure at any moment; and, had it not been for the increase in real estate prices in Beirut, we would have witnessed the gradual closure of many of them.”

Beiruty said, “The bleeding in the tourist sector has been ongoing for more than two years, with no hope of it being resuscitated. This is despite the fact that in 2009 and 2010, [tourism] accounted for approximately 22% of Lebanon’s GDP.” He expected that the sector’s contribution to national income would not exceed 5% this year.

The convergence of many factors

In this context, Ministry of Tourism sources confirmed to As-Safir that “the marked decrease in visitors was caused by the convergence of many factors; the most important among them being the local and regional security situation. The negative effects of the latter were not confined to tourist arrivals from foreign and Arab countries, but also significantly and negatively impacted the advent of Lebanese expatriates.”

“In light of this continued tension,” the same sources noted, “it becomes difficult to undertake any moves or activities meant to promote Lebanese tourism abroad. Furthermore, there are additional factors at play not related to the security situation and the Gulf countries’ boycott. Notable among them, the lack of competitive pricing for airfare and hotel rates. For example, the cost of an airplane ticket from Jordan to Lebanon amounted to an average of $390 per person, while traveling by land to Lebanon cost no more than $50 for a Jordanian or Iraqi family.”

But the sources refused to paint the situation as completely gloomy. They said that Syrian families currently made up some of the shortfall suffered by the hotel sector as a result of the boycott by Gulf and foreign countries, as well as the lack of expatriates coming to Lebanon.

The sector’s fate is unknown

In contrast, Ashkar emphasized to As-Safir that “a new government must be quickly formed, and a proper atmosphere created to attract and reassure tourists. Investments must be made in the sector, and work guaranteed year round, instead of activity being confined to three or four days during holiday season, or the limited number of conferences, trade shows and meetings by representatives of Syrian companies.”

As for current and expected bookings, Ashkar affirmed, “There are no reservations, and if the security situation continues to deteriorate and the region slides into open warfare, then it is certain that the Lebanese economy as a whole, and not just the tourism sector, will face an unknown fate.”

Beiruty said, “International studies indicated that occupancy below 35% would lead to losses and represent a burden upon the sector, which explains the current state of affairs among our institutions.” He affirmed that “had it not been for the direct backing given by Central Bank Governor Riad Salameh and the banking sector, most [tourism] institutions would have met their demise on the doorsteps of bank branches.” He quickly added, “This is a scenario that now is very close to becoming reality.”

Seasonal employees and workers in the sector total approximately 155,000 individuals. Hotels number 437 establishments in Beirut and the outlying areas, with around 80 maritime institutions and tourist resorts, 8,000 restaurants, 750 travel and tourism agents and 260 car rental companies.

Arabs to the third place

Statistics show that the number of arrivals last July amounted to 129,922 visitors, compared to 175,171 during the same month of last year, which constitutes a 17.33% drop. The decrease equals 40.85% if compared to July of 2011, when the number of tourists reached 219,653; and 64.1% if compared to July 2010, when the number of visitors totaled 361,934.

Detailed statistics for the month of July show that Arab visitors retreated to third place and numbered 26,834. They were comprised of 10,851 Iraqi visitors, 6,328 Jordanians, and 3,182 Egyptians.

Tourists from European countries took first place with 55,299 visitors, led by the French with 17,925, Germans with 7,976, and Britons with 6,113.

Visitors from the Americas were in second place and totaled 26,834, led by tourists from the United States with 13,435 individuals, 9,082 Canadians, and 1,747 Venezuelans.

In fourth place were visitors from Asia with 10,622 individuals, particularly Iranians, who numbered 1,227 tourists.

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Found in: tourism, syrian repercussions in lebanon, syrian, security, lebanon, economy, beirut
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