You may, or may not, be surprised to learn that one in every five tourists that visits Scotland feels compelled to trample over the battlefields depicted in the Oscar-winning historical epic Braveheart.
The New Zealand tourist board has exploited similar opportunities following the successful Lord of the Rings trilogy. We can go on. Zorba the Greek inspired us to seek escape from the humdrum of daily life on the carefree Aegean islands, while the 2004 buddy movie Sideways did wonders for the US wine industry and made Pinot Noir a global sensation.
Where am I going with this? Bear with me a bit longer.
The other day I read that, according to estimates made by the MasterCard index of global destination cities in its cross-border travel and expenditures for the second quarter of this year, Beirut had the second-highest visiting spending levels in the Middle East and Africa, but ranked only ninth among the top 10 destination cities in the region, by number of arrivals. In other words, Lebanon's capital is the second most expensive but only the ninth most popular, with a mere 1.7 million tourists expected here this year. Dubai came first with an anticipated 7.9 million, followed by Cairo (3.7 million), Johannesburg (3 million), Tel Aviv (2.7 million) and Casablanca (2.5 million).
Casablanca, for obvious reasons, made me think of the movies. If ever a city's reputation was defined by a film - and let's face it, not just any film - it's the Moroccan coastal port. It's a destination that almost sells itself. To be sure it's a majestic city in its own right, but tell anyone that's where you are going and they will probably imagine you unpacking a white tuxedo the moment you land. You will start smoking. Your hotel room will have a huge ceiling fan and the concierge, while catering to your every wish, will be on the payroll of a half a dozen intelligence services. See, I've started already.
It is an aura that Beirut once had and one that it might consider reclaiming if it wants its tourist offerings to appeal to a wider demographic. The ministry of tourism should, perhaps, instead of focusing on the gleaming and modern Beirut (those who ostensibly come for that already know about it), try to package and sell Beirut as the Casablanca of the Levant.
We may not have Rick's Cafe or Humphrey Bogart, but in 1965 in Where the Spies Are, David Niven, that most dapper of English actors, captured perfectly Lebanon's post-colonial, Cold War glamour and intrigue. In the same year, Mickey Rooney comes to a sticky end amid the ruins at Baalbek in Twenty Four Hours to Kill, but before he does, we are treated to wonderfully nostalgic shots of carefree tourists frolicking poolside at the St Georges and the Phoenicia hotels.
Admittedly, things became edgier in the next decade. In the 1972 thriller Embassy, Richard Roundtree, Ray Milland and Chuck Connors run amok through Beirut in a car chase that snakes through Parliament Square (try doing that now). In 1974, even the makers of The Man with the Golden Gun insisted James Bond pass through Beirut on his way to Thailand to do battle with Scaramanga.
Clearly espionage was the order of the day, but it was allied to glamour in the same way Casablanca's winning formula relied on the tension and black market charm of Vichy-occupied North Africa.
To get people in the mood, why don't we dust down and strategically re-screen Lebanon's golden age contribution to the movie industry? Middle East Airlines could show them as part of its in-flight entertainment.
Am I being realistic? All I am suggesting is that the ministry of tourism, even with its limited funds, put a different spin on Lebanon. All the elements are there to sell the country as more than just the Dubai of the Levant, which is what, if we are being honest, it has become. There is a lot more history, inherent style and, yes that word again, glamour, and they should all be exploited. Lebanon needs to move out of its comfort zone when it comes to marketing itself.
On Sunday's local TV news, tourism business owners bemoaned the lack of trade, looking at the sky as if waiting for rain. The runes do not look good. Fewer Gulf visitors are expected this year because the holy month of Ramadan falls in August, the height of the season. The diaspora will probably show up as usual, but the lean tranche of non-Arab visitors will probably be reduced to a slither, either because of the regional situation or the unhelpful abduction of seven Estonian cyclists in the Bekaa Valley in March, an incident that will have done little to promote Lebanon's eco-tourism industry
Perception is everything. The scene in The Man with the Golden Gun wasn't actually filmed in Beirut, but then again the battle scenes in Braveheart were shot in Ireland. The Scots don't care.
Michael Karam is a communications and publishing consultant based in Beirut