BEIRUT: While Lebanon’s tourism sector witnessed an increase of 3.3 percent in the number of visitors in the first half of 2018 compared to the same period of last year, it still has a long way to go to recover its peak of 2010, the record year for tourism activity in the Mediterranean country.
Lebanon has been lagging behind other regional touristic hubs for an ongoing number of years, with officials reluctant to address the drop, instead laying the blame at the feet of the media for painting Lebanon in a negative light.
“There’s a media war against Lebanon’s tourism industry,” Pierre Achkar, head of the Syndicate of Hotel Owners, told Annahar, alluding to the recent coverage which highlighted the alarming levels of metals, chemicals and a bevy of other toxins in coastal waters.
The reasoning behind this drop, however, is much more intricate than pollution according to some experts.
Exorbitant prices and a higher cost of living compared to destinations like Istanbul, Turkey, or Larnaca, Cyprus have undoubtedly played a role in deterring potential visitors.
The number of incoming visitors to Lebanon totaled 853,087 in the first six months of 2018, compared to 826,129 in the lead up to the summer of 2017.
In 2010, considered one of the golden years of Lebanese tourism, 964,067 visitors flocked to the small touristic hub to the excitement of those in the hospitality sector.
Regional instability and political unrest, which plagued the country in recent years, were the obvious culprit for this drop.
Yet by looking at the average cost of a five day trip to Beirut, a grimmer picture is evident.
A flight from Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, home to nationals who provide the bread and butter to many in the hospitality industry, costs $889, compared to $671 to Istanbul and $581 to Larnaca.
Data was compiled from global travel technology company Expedia on July 24 for the following dates: 23/08/2018 till 28/08/2018
Meanwhile, a single room at The Phoenicia Hotel, part of the global Intercontinental chain, comes in at a hefty $316 per night, while its equivalent at the Istanbul and Larnaca branch costs $233 and $203 respectively.
Add to that the average price of a three-course meal at a mid-range restaurant, and a five day trip to Lebanon carries a weighty $2739 price tag, excluding transport.
Data was compiled from Numbeo, the world’s largest database of user contributed data about cities and countries worldwide.
A five-day trip to Istanbul however, costs 1926$, while the equivalent in Larnaca comes in at $1678, a decrease of 29.6 percent and 38.7 percent respectively.
Wealthy GCC nationals escaping the desert heat have also seen their purchasing power decrease amid falling oil prices, and their visits are expected to continue dwindling despite travel warnings and restrictions being lifted.
Repercussions are still being felt to this day, after spending by visitors from Saudi Arabia decreased by 21.4 percent in the first half of 2018, followed by spending from Kuwait (-4.2 percent) and the UAE (-1.1 percent).
Visitors from Saudi Arabia accounted for 2.7 percent of tourists in the first half of 2018, dropping by 21.1 percent compared to the same period of last year while the number of visitors from the UAE dropped by 32.2 percent year-on-year.
This picture from the 1970's shows GCC nationals at the St. Georges Bay during a hot summer (Annahar Photo)
Touching on the costly airplane tickets, President of the Association of Travel and Tourist Agencies John Abboud told Annahar that “prices are correlated to the capacity of airline companies”, i.e supply and demand.
Yet, limited airline capacity is not only to blame for the relatively higher travel cost to Lebanon.
A nationwide tax hike enacted last year to fund the salary increase for public sector workers, has hiked ticket prices. Travelers leaving Lebanon on economy seats now pay a $40 exit fee while business class travelers and first-class passengers incur a fee of $73 and $100, respectively, bringing Beirut's Rafik Hariri International Airport on par with some of its most expensive counterparts.
Australia’s passenger movement charge (PMC) is the second highest in the world according to a 2016 report by Airport Technology after it imposed a $42 tax on all travelers leaving the country via international flights or by sea.
The International Air Transport Association (IATA) argues that abolishing the PMC would bring in $1.2bn as a result of tourism to Australia.
In a study conducted by the World Economic Forum, Lebanon ranked 96th out of 136 countries on the 2017 Travel & Tourism Competitiveness Index, in front of only Kuwait and Yemen in the Middle East after dropping two places since 2015, further aggravating the situation.
The solution, experts say, lies in the government dismantling the airport monopoly, which yields higher charges and taxes that burden airlines with excessive costs, pushing up the price of tickets.
Former Tourism Minister Fadi Abboud argued recently in a local newspaper that another airport should be established in northern Lebanon while expanding Beirut’s airport and focusing on accommodating low-cost carriers (LCCs).
Mobility – the movement of people and goods – is both a fundamental right and a linchpin of the global economy, experts say, with LCCs on the rise worldwide giving many people the ability to travel for the first time.
Another remedy Abboud says is Middle East Airlines' capacity to create its own LCC subsidiary at more affordable prices to attract tourists.
This picture shows Sporting Beach Club in the 1960's (Photo Courtesey of SBC)
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