fbpx

Tourism Booms in Crisis-Hit Lebanon

Published on 21.05.2023
Reading time: 4 minutes

As the banking sector has collapsed, does Lebanon really think it can survive and recover by relying on tourism alone?

If you arrive as a foreigner or Lebanese expat with a pocket full of dollars, Lebanon feels no different from the country prior to the economic crisis. And this year Lebanon expects to attract over two million visitors. 

It is a curious thing. Why would anyone come to Lebanon for a holiday during one of its toughest moments in history? 

According to Caretaker Minister of Tourism Walid Nassar, visitors will spend over $9 billion in 2023. In an interview with Bloomberg, Nassar said tourism contributes 40 percent to GDP, calling it the backbone of the Lebanese economy. 

At the outset of the crisis, the tourism industry did take a hit. Hotels and restaurants were forced to close due to the economic collapse that destroyed the middle class. In addition, the COVID-19 pandemic caused travel disruptions. As a result, Beirut resembled an abandoned city in an apocalyptic film.

Still, the government tried everything to persuade people to come. I remember Minister Nassar urging visitors, especially the Lebanese diaspora, to spend their holidays in Lebanon to help “resurrect” the economy. 

Massive amounts of money were spent to advertise Lebanon as  still a “must go” kind of place. Now, things have calmed down, and people with money are taking advantage of how cheap commodities are when bought in dollars. 

Yara Adada, a small business owner who runs Moon’s Bakery & Coffee Shop in Gemmayze, explained why she thinks Lebanon is still attracting visitors. 

“Lebanon is still a beautiful country that has the traditional appeal to bring in people,” she told Daraj. “Plus, those with dollars will find the country affordable.” 

Many visitors, including expats, will agree. Two guests sipping on their coffees at Moon’s were visiting from the United Kingdom. They were talking about how taking a drive up to Batroun was on their list of must-do things.

What brought them to Lebanon in these troubled times, I asked.

“We are of Lebanese heritage, from Zahle, in the Bekaa Valley,” one of them said. “It was always our intention to come. We wanted our kids to see where they are from. But work, and the issues that the country went through, [until now] prevented us from doing so.” 

They had not been to Lebanon for many years. And there were parts of the country they never set foot in. One of them was Batroun in the north, which is currently the place to be in Lebanon. Recently, the Batroun International Festival attracted both local and international visitors. 

The fact that the national currency lost over 90 percent of its pre-crisis value has made Lebanon a much less expensive destination. Another interesting justification I found was a desire to escape the negative media representation of the Middle East. 

“Damascus Looked Perfectly Fine”

One tourist from Austria, who had visited Lebanon 10 years ago, felt like passing by Beirut coming from Damascus. When I asked her a few questions, she at first half-heartedly thought I was trying to scam her. After reassuring her that was not the case, she happily agreed to share her perspective. 

“I’ve been here before, and had a great time,” she said. “Just yesterday, I was in Damascus and it looked perfectly fine. Yes, they may not have a lot of money, but they manage well enough. The journalists back home tell a story of a broken Lebanon. I think that it’s exaggerated and told with ill intentions. I only have one complaint: the traffic. They are sporty drivers, and the parking I find really frustrating.” 

I advised her to have a drink at Aaliya’s Books and listen to a political talk on Wednesday hosted by Ronnie Chatah. She said she would love to but was leaving the country that same day. 

“Unless they have the talk at 5am, I won’t be there.” She was staying at the Lost hotel in Gemmayze and found it “groozy.” 

It is clear that, no matter what circumstances Lebanon finds itself in, there will always be people who crave to step on its shores and relish in its pleasures. 

Here is the truth: Lebanon is not that unrecognizable from “the good old days” if you are a tourist or visitor. Beirut’s nightlife is still booming with clubs and bars. Every weekend you can see all kinds of people, young, old, Lebanese, and foreign, enjoying themselves, as if the crisis doesn’t exist. 

And as summer approaches, there will inevitably be more tourists of all backgrounds getting a taste of what Lebanon has to offer. And, definitely, people working in the local travel and recreation sector will profit. 

But, again, it is an illusion. 

And it is a delusion to think that a mass influx of visitors with hard currency will save the country. It will not.

The two legs that kept the Lebanese economy standing tall before 2019 were tourism and banking. The latter is gone. Does Lebanon really think it can hold its own and recover totally by standing on just one leg? 

Unlikely.

Published on 21.05.2023
Reading time: 4 minutes

Subscribe to our newsletter