Lebanese expats dance away the end of summer, boosting nightlife sector

For those working in Lebanon’s nightlife sector, this past summer’s influx of Lebanese expats visiting home — and bringing foreign currency with them — brought a much-needed boost of income.

Lebanese expats dance away the end of summer, boosting nightlife sector

Nightlife in Beirut's Mar Mikhael neighborhood. (Arthur Dumas/L'Orient-Le Jour)

A cigarette between his lips, and a glass in his hand, Omar sways his hips to the rhythm of the bass that fills the nightclub. At the end of this summer season, a light breeze passes through the gaping holes of the building, situated on Beirut’s waterfront.

AHM nightclub reopened in May, but the building, damaged by the Aug. 4 2020 Beirut port explosion, still bears some scars.

“My friend came from England to spend a few days in Lebanon. I had to show him that the Lebanese nightlife is back,” Omar, whose name has been changed for privacy, says.

Yet, since the Oct. 2019 protest movement, COVID-19, the port disaster, and the country’s general collapse due to the economic and financial crisis, Omar had given up on nightlife. His friend’s visit was an opportunity for him to party again. “It feels so good!” he says as he gets back on the dance floor.

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Omar isn’t alone. This past summer has seen the return of the clubs, rooftops and other party venues that have long made Lebanon’s reputation in the region. After two complicated summers, the 2022 summer season seems to have kept its promises.

For Nagi Morkos, CEO of Hodema, a company that provides consulting services for hospitality and tourism, three factors explain this success.

“First, this is the first summer in Lebanon after COVID restrictions were lifted, especially those targeting nightlife establishments,” Morkos tells L’Orient-Le Jour.

“Secondly, Lebanese people living in the country can less afford to travel and have resorted to local entertainment venues. Finally, Lebanese abroad visited the country in large numbers, with a perception that prices are lower, which was the case before they started to increase over time,” he says.

“We noticed positive signs of recovery,” says Selim Ghanem, CEO of Standalone Group and owner of Spine, a rooftop lounge in Naccashe, north of Beirut. “The sector started to display prices in dollars again and customers have accepted the change.”

In early June, Lebanon’s Ministry of Tourism decided to “exceptionally” allow tourism establishments to set their prices in US dollars from June 2 to Sept. 30. Caretaker Tourism Minister Walid Nassar at the time said his ministry had made the decision “taking into consideration the exceptional condition that the country is going through.”

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While final tourism figures from this summer have yet to come out, the Tourism Minister counted a nearly 50 percent increase in foreign tourists visiting Lebanon this past June since the same month in 2021. Many of them are Lebanese expats visiting home for the summer months.

The 9:26 p.m. rush

“There were about 9,000 people in the first half of July, and between 1,200 and 1,300 people were hosted all the following nights,” said Tarek Chammas, organizer of Afro-Latino Nights at the Sporting Club, a well-known nightlife spot on the Beirut seafront.

To the rhythm of reggaeton, Afrobeat and French rap, the partygoers recently enjoyed the club’s closing night although “the number of people present was half of what it was during the previous nights,” Chammas says the next day.

Still, by the time the event kicked off, the venue was already full. “There was a free entrance for those who arrived between 9:00 and 9:30 pm. Usually, it lasts an hour, during which we welcome between 50 and 60 people,” he says.

On this late September evening, however, at 9:26 p.m, some were running to get in on time. “134 people arrived in half an hour during which there was free entrance,” he says. They are mostly Lebanese who still live in the country, he says, eager to avoid paying an additional few hundred Lebanese lira. “We could tell that the expatriates left.”

“It’s been two or three years since we organized a big event, but with the return of the Lebanese [expatriates] to the country, we had to mark the occasion,” says the owner of Dirty Laundry, a bar-restaurant in Beirut’s Mar Mikhael neighborhood.

“Everything is more expensive this year, but for those who come from abroad, Lebanon is still more affordable than other vacation destinations,” he says.

With the crisis, the depreciation of the national currency has allowed visitors with foreign currency to stretch their money further on nightlife and tourism.

“Before the crisis, Lebanese nightlife was much more expensive than now,” says Chammas. The entrance ticket to the last Afro-Latino Night he organized ranged between LL350,000 and LL450,000, equivalent to about $10 at the current parallel market rate (around LL38,000 per US dollar).

A table reservation for at least six people is priced at $35 per head and a lounge reservation for a minimum of 10 people is priced at $50 per head. “In comparison, you have to double all these prices to get back to the pre-crisis rates. And that’s at least twice as much,” says Chammas.

Nevertheless, some popular neighborhoods noted a decline this summer. This is the case of Mar Mikhael and Gemmayzeh, home to dozens of popular bars and restaurants. Largely rebuilt since the port explosion, these two side-by-side neighborhoods have been subject to certain nighttime restrictions the past several months, following complaints from residents exhausted by the noise pollution.

Since the beginning of June, the police have been seen patrolling and issuing fines to any establishment that does not respect the closing time: midnight on weekdays and 1 a.m. on weekends.

The new measures have hurt local establishments, owners say.

“Basically, our sales dropped by 50 percent this summer because of these restrictions,” says Chammas. “But we’ve adapted.” Dirty Laundry, whose rooftop used to be a dance floor, has become more of a food court “where people go before they go dancing in clubs” outside the residential areas.

Winter is coming

But not everyone is on the same page. Joe Mourani, owner of Café Standard in Gemmayzeh, calls this past summer “excellent,” but that prices are on the rise.“Last season was also very good. Beirut was less expensive. Today, with the dollarization, prices are in the same range of those in Europe and are starting to return to the way they were before the crisis.”

This observation is shared by Ghanem, who owns the Spine lounge in Naccashe. “Some local partygoers spend more than tourists and vice versa, but overall, our prices are almost equivalent to those before the crisis because our priority is the quality of service.”

On average, he says, a ticket at Spine is less than $60 per person. While he expects a slowdown in attendance with the end of the summer season, he expressed confidence about recovery at the local level.

But the queen of this summer was Batroun. The coastal city has become “the place to be” for many partiers since the crisis in Lebanon began and especially since Aug. 4, 2020 — although “it’s sad to say that,” says Steve Mubarak, a veteran of the nightlife there.

“Local and foreign tourists are converging on Batroun and are logically followed by the big franchises and investors,” Mubarak says. “With the prices displayed in dollars, it was easy for each tourist establishment to generate profits this summer.”

Mubarak warns, however, that the low season is coming. “Local consumers do not have the same means as Lebanese expatriates and the cost of living in Batroun has increased due to the high summer demand,” he says.

However, there is one hope for the sector in Lebanon: the upcoming World Cup final in Qatar, which starts in November.

“We are thinking about different options to capitalize on this event, such as rebroadcasting the matches, but it is quite complicated,” says Chammas.

Scheduled to last until mid-December, this international event could kickstart the winter tourist season in Lebanon, those working in the sector hope.

For now, Chammas says, “We are waiting for the Lebanese expatriates in December.”

This article was originally published in French in L'Orient-Le Jour. Translation by Joelle El Khoury

A cigarette between his lips, and a glass in his hand, Omar sways his hips to the rhythm of the bass that fills the nightclub. At the end of this summer season, a light breeze passes through the gaping holes of the building, situated on Beirut’s waterfront.AHM nightclub reopened in May, but the building, damaged by the Aug. 4 2020 Beirut port explosion, still bears some scars.“My friend came...