After concerns that this week’s kidnapping of a Saudi airline worker in Beirut could hurt the summer’s crucial tourism season, workers in the industry say they are relieved the man’s quick rescue could reassure incoming travelers.
“The case will not discourage those planning to come to Lebanon this summer,” Jean Abboud, president of the Association of Travel and Tourist Agents in Lebanon, told L’Orient-Le Jour.
The head of the Lebanese Hotel Association, Pierre Achkar, concurred: “The fact that the rescue operation was swift and successful sends out a strong, positive signal.”
Tony Rami, head of the Syndicate of Owners of Restaurants, Cafes, Nightclubs and Patisseries, went further, calling on authorities to “severely sentence Saudia airline employee Mashari al-Mutairi’s kidnappers.
After the incident, could Gulf tourists — once crucial to Lebanon’s summer tourism season — still make a comeback?
Abboud pointed out that, although COVID-related restrictions were lifted last year, Gulf tourists have yet to return to Lebanon. Four of the six Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries — Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates and Kuwait — continue to warn their citizens who plan to visit Lebanon.
“The return of tourists from the Gulf is not necessarily for this summer, but depends on the regional context, where the trend is towards appeasement and normalization,” said Abboud, in reference to the recent diplomatic rapprochement between Riyadh and Tehran.
Caution by hotel industry
Lebanese tourism professionals say they expect the summer season to be the same as last year.
The summer of 2022 saw a clear upturn in the number of visitors and tourism-generated revenues compared with 2020 and 2021. These two years were marked by the outbreak of COVID-19, the worsening of the economic and financial crisis that started in 2019, and the Aug. 4, 2020 Beirut port explosion.
“The [Lebanese] expatriates will be here, but we’re also expecting a significant influx of foreign tourists, who already accounted for a significant portion of the total [number of visitors] in 2022,” Abboud anticipated.
Rami said that industry expectations are very high. “We’re ready to kick off a memorable season, the best since 2019,” he said. No fewer than “250 new restaurants recently opened in the country,” he said.
Achkar estimated that the hotel sector’s performance this summer will be similar to that recorded a year ago, with an average occupancy rate ranging between “25 and 35 percent for overnight stays from Sunday to Wednesday, and from 65 to 85 percent for overnight stays from Thursday to Saturday,” with some establishments occasionally managing to be fully booked.
“The majority of summer visitors to Lebanon are Lebanese emigrants. They usually have a place to stay in Lebanon, or are staying with relatives. If they decide to book a hotel for a change for a weekend, they’ll do so once they’re here,” he said, justifying his cautious expectations.
The Minister’s forecast
Speaking at the Arabian Travel Market, which was held May 1-4 in Dubai, caretaker Tourism Minister Walid Nassar estimated that the country could expect to see 2.2 million tourists arrive this year, generating no less than $9 billion in revenue for the country.
According to the ministry’s figures compiled by Lebanon This Week, Byblos Bank's weekly magazine, Lebanon welcomed 1.44 million visitors in 2022, up from almost up 65 percent compared to 2021 and 254 percent to 2020.
This total, however, includes some Lebanese expatriates who entered the country using a passport issued by another country. European nationals (40 percent of the total) and those from Arab nations (27 percent) were the most represented.
Finally, the number of tourists increased by 30 percent over the first three months of 2023, giving credence to some optimism in the industry.
The minister’s expectations about the revenues will soon be put to the test. According to a study by his ministry, the sector generated $6.4 billion in revenues in 2022.
It was in 2012 that these revenues hit their highest level, with $8.59 billion, according to Banque du Liban (BDL) figures.
In that same year, Lebanese tourists spent $6.34 billion abroad, reducing net tourism revenues for that year to $2.25 billion.
BDL has yet to publish figures of the total revenues in 2022.
The caretaker minister did not respond to L’Orient-Le Jour’s request for further details on the ministry’s calculations and forecast.
This article was originally published in French in L'Orient-Le Jour. Translation by Joelle El Khoury.