Lebanon’s hospitality industry cautiously optimistic for summer 2024

Hotel and restaurant owners say support from the diaspora continues to be key to sustaining their industries amidst ongoing instability in the country. 

Lebanon’s hospitality industry cautiously optimistic for summer 2024

Caretaker Minister of Tourism, Walid Nassar, speaks at a panel at the HORECA Expo at the Seaside Arena, Beirut, Lebanon, April 16, 2024. (Credit: Sally Abou AlJoud/L'Orient Today)

BEIRUT — Despite the geopolitical tension, economic turmoil, the aftermath of Beirut's devastating 2020 explosion, and the lingering impact of the COVID pandemic, Lebanon's Tourism Ministry is hoping for a “prosperous” summer 2024, according to minister Walid Nassar.

That includes new restaurants sprouting up, and whispers of forthcoming hotel openings, including the highly-anticipated re-opening of the Four Seasons Hotel.

At the forefront of this resurgence is the annual HORECA expo, which launched its 28th edition on Tuesday at the Seaside Arena in Beirut, where Nassar spoke to a panel about the hotel and restaurant industry.

“We cannot stop the war in the south nor in Gaza but we know how to resist, each in his own sector,” Nassar said. The recent woes come after nearly half of Lebanon’s restaurants shut their doors since the economic crisis began in 2019, according to the head of the Lebanese restaurant owners’ syndicate.

But how is the sector holding up despite it all?

“For 30 years, this sector has never enjoyed stability,” Pierre Achkar, President of the Federation for Tourism and Hotel Association in Lebanon, said at a panel on Tuesday.

“Following the [Beirut port] explosion, we managed to rebuild Beirut, with barely any means, with no loans, credit lines, aid or banks and we will overcome this now too,” Achkar added.

Leading by example, Tony Ramy, President of the Syndicate of owners of restaurants, cafes, night clubs and pastries in Lebanon, said he is “personally investing in 13 new restaurants in the Lebanese market,” inviting others to invest in the country, despite the political uncertainties.

Newly opened restaurants

Lebanon's culinary scene has been emerging with many new restaurants and concepts over the last year.

Despite Lebanon’s setbacks, last summer witnessed the opening of approximately 330 new restaurants, with “30 percent” garnering notable success, Ramy said.

“Before the crisis, Lebanon hosted around 8,500 restaurants. During the crisis, this number dropped to 4,500,” he added. “We would like to have better security circumstances and political stability for the summer, but we will move forward, despite the state of worry and fatigue we are facing.”

Tarek Alameddine, co-founder of the newly established, luxury Buco Burger Bar, speaking at a panel said Lebanon’s restaurant market “is saturated if you open another Italian restaurant, but focusing on innovative concepts and products and new atmospheres will make it worth it.”

Maya Bekhazi, CEO of Bobo Fou Bistro, a restaurant serving a fusion of Italian, French and Greek cuisine, identified emerging trends in the food service market since 2019: “There has been a trend of opening smaller restaurants and decentralizing — moving away from the city.”

Despite the sector's resurgence, Ramy cautioned against complacency, noting that Lebanon's hospitality industry has yet to regain its pre-crisis vibrancy.

Speaking with L’Orient Today, he reflected on the industry's heyday in 2010, emphasizing “the role of political stability and real estate prosperity in driving the hospitality sector’s growth.”

Fully-booked hotels this summer?

Despite the turbulent political landscape and economic woes plaguing Lebanon, its hotel sector seems to be navigating the stormy waters, too. After witnessing a thriving summer in 2023, hotel managers are cautiously optimistic despite the bleak local and regional circumstances.

The influx of visitors, primarily driven by the Lebanese diaspora, has provided a lifeline for these facilities, Jean Beyrouthi, president of the Syndicate of Owners of Beach and Seaside Resorts, said.

But, he said that since the war in Gaza and in southern Lebanon, “the numbers have decreased. ” He hopes hotels can “close the gap of the war losses during the summer season.”

Chirine Salha, a shareholder at Beirut's prestigious Phoenicia Hotel, says the establishment hosts increased numbers of diverse clientele, including affluent guests from Qatar, Kuwait, and Iraq, highlighting that Iraqis “especially love the proximity to Hamra and sea views.”

Additionally, Syrians traveling back to Syria from different countries have been treating Lebanon as a transit stop, where they spend a couple of nights at hotels.

Egyptians are also amongst Phoenicia's guests, “albeit now at lower numbers due to their own economic downturn in their home country,” Salha added.

The number of visitors from Europe has dwindled since the war in Gaza, she said, adding that she “does not expect the number to increase much in the summer.”

Mohammad Yassine, general manager of Radisson Blu, said pre-existing business challenges have only intensified since 2019, such as the lack of credit lines and reliance on cash transactions.

There is also the disruptive influence of Airbnb, which Eddy Nohra, General Manager at Beirut’s Staybridge Suites said is “a challenging competitor taking away clients from hotels.”

“However, Airbnb offers minimum service with a clean bed, so clients who are looking for something more, for a luxurious stay with quality service will always come to us,” he told L’Orient Today.

Georges Ojeil, general manager at the luxury Four Seasons Hotel, hinted at the imminent re-opening of the property, which was damaged in the 2020 Beirut port blast, “hopefully mid-next year.” He added that an official announcement and date is yet to be revealed.

Similarly, Roy Bou Gharios, general manager at Voco Hotels, hinted at the emergence of new hotel ventures in central Beirut, while Radisson Blu’s Yassine said the establishment will announce the opening of a new hotel outside the capital.

Who is coming to Lebanon?

Marwan Haber, head of the commercial division at Middle East Airlines, says the diaspora plays an important role in sustaining the industry.

“Ninety-five percent of passengers on board of flights between Lebanon and other countries are Lebanese passport holders,” Haber said.

“Almost all MEA flights are getting fully booked,” he said, but that does not necessarily translate to an increase in traffic as MEA has reduced its flight frequencies.

Starting Oct. 20, Lebanon's flag carrier was compelled to reduce the number of its flights “by half” following a decrease by 60 percent to insurance coverage due to regional tensions linked to the Hamas-Israel war, and its possible spillover into Lebanon.

Haber said that flight bookings during March 2023, ahead of the summer, increased 80 percent compared to the year’s previous months, adding that this March, however, the uptick remains “between 50 to 60 percent,” compared to the previous months. Haber says he remains “hopeful” that bookings will keep increasing for the summer.

According to Nassar, by the end of August 2023, 31 percent of the 2.8 million tourists who arrived in Lebanon over the summer were “European. ” He added that people in the Lebanese diaspora holding foreign passports are usually counted in that category.

Haber said there has not been “significant traffic arriving from Europe or Western countries — it is limited to some tourists and NGO workers and diplomats.”

Nassar said he hopes to welcome again more tourists from neighboring Arab countries this summer, but said that is hinged on “a political decision” on the part of Gulf countries. He added, however, that around 850 Qatari tourists arrived in Lebanon over the recent Easter and Ramadan holidays, signaling an uptick in Arab tourists.

Significant numbers of tourists from the Gulf States have been avoiding Lebanon for several years now. Last summer, several Gulf countries called for its nationals to leave Lebanon amid tension in south Lebanon. Such calls have been discouraging GCC nationals from visiting Lebanon during the peak tourist season.

BEIRUT — Despite the geopolitical tension, economic turmoil, the aftermath of Beirut's devastating 2020 explosion, and the lingering impact of the COVID pandemic, Lebanon's Tourism Ministry is hoping for a “prosperous” summer 2024, according to minister Walid Nassar.That includes new restaurants sprouting up, and whispers of forthcoming hotel openings, including the highly-anticipated...