A year after being buffeted by the Syrian civil war, increased sectarian tensions, and an economy that has been allowed to careen full speed into a brick wall, it seems Beirut still has enough box office pull to rank 20th out of 25 of the world’s best cities in Condé Nast Traveler’s Readers’ Choice Awards.
San Miguel de Allende (it’s in Mexico apparently) topped the poll. The other 23 destinations were picked from the usual suspects; Beirut was the only other quirky choice.
And it really is quirky. Because anyone who has lived here over the past year might be forgiven for thinking that the 80,000 readers who cast their votes did so perhaps after partaking of too much shisha.
Bad roads, worse driving, gridlock, smog, high prices and sloppy service define Beirut at the best of times. But since 2011, we can add kidnappings, car bombs, gun battles, empty shops and failing restaurants. All this no doubt falls under what Condé Nast gamely calls the “tapestry of sects, religions and lifestyles that provide a feast for the mind of the intellectual”.
The ministry of tourism, which is willing to clutch at any straw these days to show that Beirut still has its mojo, hailed the news. But it will have offered few crumbs of comfort to what is left of Lebanon’s decimated tourist, hospitality and retail sectors – all of which have experienced a 20 to 30 per cent dip in business in the past 12 months, and which reported terrible business during the recent Eid Al Adha holiday.
But I can’t help think that Condé Nast readers, either by accident or design, got it right. Beirut is a mighty city that can leave a huge, almost visceral impact, especially on western visitors, even though it has few obvious attractions to recommend it. Let’s face it: there are no genuine architectural jewels, galleries, parks, public spaces and only one small, but admittedly impressive, museum.
But to compare it to other cities is to misunderstand one of the oldest places on Earth. Forgive the clichés, but it is the raw vitality of a city that stands, quite literally, at the entrance to a region that is not only the cradle of the three monotheist religions, but also arguably the cradle of civilisation itself, that surely gives Beirut its appeal.
And it is out of this appeal that springs its warmth, spirit, generosity and energy. A London-based editor, whose work takes him on press trips all over the world, told me that his recent visit to Beirut was “more of a life experience than a work trip”.
He spoke about “the food, the company and the hospitality”. That’s all Beirut does, but it’s enough for it to get under your skin.
Beirut has powerful pheromones that must be properly bottled and sold, and not just to the Arab tourists, who already appreciate the city for different reasons (they love Beirut for its relatively milder climate, its laid-back attitude, its savoir faire and ability to throw a good party).
And when Lebanon’s bickering political class finally gets around to forming a new government, it might be a good idea for the ministry of tourism to think about initiating a modest, smart and tightly focused campaign to seriously sell the city to western visitors. Is it worth it? What price can you put on a life experience?
Beirut is a multi-layered city where the remains of past civilisations lie only a few metres under the ground. As has been the case for centuries, businesses will no doubt come and go, houses, hotels and malls will be thrown up and pulled down, and there will undoubtedly be more violence.
In the meantime, we should celebrate the fact that even in the worst of times the rest of the world can still appreciate the inherent greatness of a city whose vivacity firmly radiates its very core.
Michael Karam is a freelance writer based in Beirut