Lebanon: Lebanon Tourism Profile 2012
Lebanon Tourism Profile 2012
The local political situation combined with regional events (mainly in Syria) continue to affect the tourism industry in Lebanon. The total number of tourists has dropped by 24.4% during the first ten months of the current year, according to data published by Bank Audi. The figures indicate that a total of 1,400,711 tourists visited Lebanon as of late October against 1,851,922 in the same period of 2010. During the month of October 2011 alone, the number of tourists reached 124,601, down 20.8% compared to the same month in 2010. Most tourists came from Arab countries with 34% of total visitors, followed by Europeans (29.6%), Asians (15.8%), America (13.6%), Africa (3.6%) and Oceania (3.3%).
It is interesting to note that at the end of October 2010 the share of Arab tourists amounted to 41.3%.
The tourism sector is an important factor within the Lebanese economy. Lebanon's Minister of Tourism Fadi Abboud, has recently said: "Tourism in Lebanon accounts for 22 % of the country's national income. It is the most important income source for Lebanon. We hope that (in the future) we will produce oil and secure another important source of income for Lebanon."
Last year, the Lebanese tourism sector grew by about 20 %. Its revenues amounted to just over US$8 billion.
Tourism revival after political stability
After two consecutive years of sharp downturn in travel and tourism activity, political stability brought about by the nomination of President Michel Suleiman in May 2008 had an immediate positive impact on tourism’s performance. However, the travel and tourism industry remains vulnerable unless political stability and safety become a permanent feature in the country. The Lebanese tourism industry witnessed two very tough seasons in 2006 and 2007. However, it rallied somewhat in 2008 and many hotels, car rental, travel retail and other services businesses reopened. Political stability in Lebanon will continue to be a fundamental condition if tourism is ever to consistently flourish. Legislative elections in 2009 also proved to be a testing time in determining the stability and safety in the country.
Tourism’s contribution to the economy
Tourism’s contribution was 9% of GDP which equates to US$4 billion in 2008. This was the highest contribution since the 1970s. If political stability can be sustained, then tourism could easily account for 15 % of GDP over the next three years, and over 20% in the longer term. As tourism employs 20% of the active population it should contribute to improving the country’s economy in the coming years. Tourism receipts are also a second source of currency after Lebanese Diaspora transfers at US$6 billion.
After the 2006 Israeli invasion, Lebanon attracted huge foreign investments of US$15 targeting infrastructure, real estate and tourist accommodation. Up to 2008, travel accommodation capacity had recovered to its highest levels with 25,600 rooms, similar to the pre-invasion period. The travel accommodation sector is dominated by luxury hotels, leaving little choice for budget travellers. Accommodation is mainly concentrated in the capital, Beirut. Of increasing importance, not only to the country, but also most European markets are ecotourism, sport and mountain tourism, all of which are expected to encourage the launch of new types of accommodation such as hostels and guesthouses in mountain regions. However, the sector will still be dominated by branded hotels, the number of which increased in 2008 with the opening of the new Ramada in the capital.
Ecotourism forms the heart of Lebanese Tourism
Ecotourism is gaining more importance in terms of tourist choices and Lebanon has strong assets with many natural reserves, and a fabulous mix of forest, mountain and hospitable people. The 2005-2008 period, characterised by instability, influenced Lebanese travellers to discover the country’s natural resources. During the same period, the Ministry of Tourism adopted strong direct marketing campaigns via the internet such as Lebanon-online, and involved specialised travel agents, all of which underlined the importance of ecotourism. In parallel, awareness of the importance of natural resources was reinforced by the establishment of protected natural reserves such as Al Shouf Cedar reserve, Horsh Ehden, Afqa, Palm Islands, Tannourine and Tyre Beach.
Air transport capacity is growing steadily in Lebanon. The national airline, Middle East Airline, MEA, is reinforcing its fleet through the purchase of 10 aeroplanes between 2009 and 2010. It is also expanding its offering and some new destinations will include Paris, Cairo, Amman, Jeddah, Riyadh, Dubai and Abu Dhabi. In parallel, Lebanon has become one of the most attractive destinations for low-cost companies in the Middle East. Six companies serve the country from Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, the UAE, Kuwait and Qatar. The road network is benefiting from the investment funds allocated to Lebanon after the Israeli attacks in 2006. Investments in modes of transport will be an important asset for Lebanon to develop new markets in tourism and encourage new tourists to visit the country.
Lebanon’s tourism industry may again be hard hit by the threat of political instability at home and the reality of slowing economic growth, as well as unrest in some of its main markets, with an unseasonal chill settling over the summer holiday period. Along with many countries in the region, Lebanon is feeling a cool breeze blowing over its tourism hopes for the season. Regional tourism has all but gone into reverse, with unrest and economic woes resulting in the gains of last year evaporating, according to the UN World Tourism Organisation (UNWTO).
While the UNWTO is predicting an increase of between 4% and 5% for international arrivals globally, the Middle East and North African regions are expected to see tourism numbers fall sharply. In a report issued at the end of June, the UN agency said the Middle East had witnessed a 14% fall in arrivals in the first four months of the year, with a drop of 11% in the North African region.
These two areas enjoyed a 14% jump in arrivals in 2010, with Lebanon being one of the star attractions. Having broken all arrival records with 2.17m visitors going through passport control last year, much if not all of that progress could now be eroded, though the UNWTO did say that it expected destinations such as Lebanon “currently facing difficulties will see demand to recover towards the end of the year”.
So far this year, Lebanon is even underperforming regional results, with arrivals down by more than 18% over the first five months of the year compared to the 2010 figures for the same period. As of the end of May, Lebanon had welcomed some 596,000 overseas arrivals, down from the 733,000 for the opening five months of 2010, according to data issued by Byblos Bank at the end of June.
More worrying is the downward trend, with May seeing the greatest drop so far this year, with arrivals down by 29.1% against the same month last year, while incoming visitor numbers in January were down just 7.6%.
Nassib Ghobril, head economist at Byblos Bank, said that blame for the slowdown in the sector can be laid at a number of doors, with domestic political instability and regional turmoil being well to the fore. “I think Western tourists have written off the Arab world since early this year,” he said in an interview with Now Lebanon, a news site, on June 26. “As for Gulf nationals, with the turmoil in Syria, they might be concerned that it might spill over here. So I don’t expect the same number of Gulf nationals to be here during the summer.”
Hotel occupancy rates have fallen in line with visitor numbers, with Beirut seeing average occupancy rates of 50% in the first four months of the year. This was down from 72% in the same period of 2010, according to data from Ernst & Young, although the industry did benefit from a temporary pick-up after the new coalition government was formed in mid-June.
Domestic concerns may ramp up in the coming weeks after the UN-backed Special Tribunal for Lebanon (STL) – tasked with investigating the 2005 assassination of Rafik Hariri, the former prime minister – issued an initial indictment calling for the arrest and trial of four members of Hezbollah. The organisation, which now forms part of the coalition government of Prime Minister Najib Mikati, has denied any link to the killing of Hariri and has in the past said it will not accept any unfavourable findings by the tribunal.
On July 1, the day after the STL handed over its report to a senior Lebanese state prosecutor, the country’s tourism minister, Fadi Abboud, called for calm and warned against any actions that could harm the sector.
“I hope that tourism remains immune from any political tensions because it represents 20% of the national income,” Abboud told local radio station Voice of Lebanon. “I call on politicians not to spread false rumours, especially in the Gulf media, which describe the situation in Lebanon as critical.”
Thus, Lebanon’s tourism sector will have to wait and see how developments pan out both domestically and regionally, though even in a best-case scenario the industry will have trouble coming close to the strong performances of last year, let alone breaking records.
Tourism's place in the Sun
Lebanon is quietly confident of breaking through the 2m mark for tourist arrivals this year and setting a new record both for visitor numbers and revenue, but the government is being urged to do more to ensure the sector's growth.
Tourism is one of the key sectors of the Lebanese economy, representing some 20% of gross domestic product (GDP), and – according to the World Council of Travel and Tourism (WTTC) – accounting for 38% of employment, a figure it expects to increase to 42% over the next decade.
Last year, just over 1.85m tourists went through passport control at Lebanon's ports of entry, a 39% increase on 2008 that smashed the previous best of 1.4m, posted in 1974, a year before the outbreak of the 15-year-long civil war.
The recovery will be given further momentum if the tourism sector meets the high expectations held for it in 2010 by the Ministry of Tourism, which predicts that arrivals could top 2.25m this year.
To date, this forecast looks like being fulfilled, with some 964,000 visitors arriving in the first six months of the year, a 26.6% rise on the 761,415 tourists in the same period of 2009. The trend appears to be continuing in to the second half of the year, with July arrivals up 11.58% on the same month in 2009, with 361,934 visitors landing, according to Tourism Ministry figures released in mid August.
However, there are some threats to that trend, most notably tensions with neighbouring Israel. At the beginning of August, an exchange of gunfire between Israeli and Lebanese soldiers left four dead and a number of others wounded, and briefly saw reserves from both sides being moved towards the border in the south.
Not surprisingly, Tourism Minister Fadi Abboud took pains to play down the spat and a heated exchange of words that followed, saying there was no risk the tensions could escalate into war and that the incident would not harm the tourism trade.
"Tourists are used to such events and I don't think that they will want to end their vacation in Lebanon because of what happened," he told local media.
The minister's comments came after a number of foreign countries, including some in the Arab world, warned their citizens to reconsider traveling to Lebanon and to take extra precautions if doing so.
Lebanon still has to contend with the long-standing impression, dating from the civil war and reinforced by the Israeli invasion of 2006, that it remains an unsafe place to visit. Changing this could take time and a sustained period of uninterrupted peace.
While some tourists may be wary of coming to Lebanon, investors in the tourism sector are not, with around $3bn worth of projects currently being implemented across the country. In Beirut alone, there are some 1200 new hotel rooms being added to the existing short-term accommodation stock, with the total number of rooms expected in all of Lebanon to rise from the current 16,000 to 21,000 by 2011, according to Tourism Ministry figures.
Though investments from the private sector are on the rise, they are not being matched by government funding, a problem that could harm the tourism industry down the track. Road links to some of Lebanon's most popular and scenic sites outside of Beirut are poorly maintained, making for extended traveling time and a bumpy ride. While booming visitor numbers strain water supplies, especially in the summer months, many hotels, resorts and tourism attractions need to operate their own electricity. While many tourists might not mind roughing it a bit, most would still like a hot shower and a cold drink after doing so.
If the Lebanese tourism industry is to meet the predictions of global travel bodies and become a bigger employer and the economy's driving force, the government may need to try harder to smooth the sector's path.
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