x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 21 January 2018

Lebanese tourism - just do nothing and they will come

Only Lebanon, a country rife with rumours of war fuelled by the rattling of regional sabres, could pull off topping the list of the World Travel and Tourism Council's annual research report.

Only Lebanon, a country rife with rumours of war fuelled by the rattling of regional sabres, could pull off topping the list of the World Travel and Tourism Council's annual research report for this year. Despite the country's history of instability, the report predicts Lebanon's tourism sector will post the world's biggest growth, which it forecasts at 11.3 per cent. Not long after these figures were released, Fadi Abboud, the new tourism minister for Lebanon, told the American Lebanese Chamber of Commerce that he was launching yet another state initiative to promote Lebanon as a genuine tourism destination.

But wait, you say. If an annual influx of more than 1 million visitors to a country half the size of Wales who generate revenues of nearly US$4.3 billion (Dh15.79bn) - about 12 per cent of the country's GDP - isn't genuine tourism, what is? But there is method to Mr Abboud's madness. A talented and shrewd industrialist in a former life, he clearly wants to regulate and improve what is, despite its healthy figures, an unregulated sector with unfulfilled potential.

His goal is presumably to promote Lebanon as more than just a playground for fellow Arabs and a quirky destination for the more adventurous European sightseers. Mr Abboud no doubt wants what successive ministers have referred to, and I will paraphrase here, "niche tourism for a boutique destination". He wants the eco-tourists to hike Lebanon's mountain trails and eat organic food made by ruddy women with beaming smiles, or cheery men with huge moustaches and baggy trousers.

He would love to see more heritage tourists stand awestruck in Baalbek's Temple of Jupiter; more religious tourists, wine tourists, medical tourists, conference tourists, ski bums and all the like. But it won't happen because there is no collective vision. And in Lebanon, if it isn't collective it won't happen. It is nearly 14 years to the day that I experienced the harsh realities of promoting tourism in this lovely but mad country.

In 1995, I was editor of Visitor, a magazine that for three glorious issues was the Lebanese ministry of tourism's official publication. The proprietor was a lovely man who we all called the Chief, while he in turn, called me Lord Michael (on account I presume of my British accent). Visitor was a typically Lebanese arrangement. The Chief had "won" the right to publish the magazine for the ministry and could use the ministry's good name to solicit advertising. In return, he had to report the ministry's news and run features on soap making in Tripoli and where to buy a hookah. The content was censored by a frightening commissar who worked under the minister.

On April 11, 1996, I was summoned to a press conference at the tourism ministry on Hamra Street just across from the central bank. I was not feeling very well and the combination of cigarette smoke and the droning tones of Nicholas Fattouche, who was then the minister, were not helping. Just as the late Bill Bird, a retired British Army captain who ran a PR agency in Beirut, stood up and asked Mr Fattouche in his faltering French how he expected visitors to enjoy Baalbek when the Syrian army was camped in the Bekaa Valley, all of the mobile phones in the room started to ring and the place slowly began to empty.

The reason for the exodus was an Israeli attack helicopter hovering above the central bank, rocketing the hell out of the southern suburbs. Operation Grapes of Wrath had begun. Back at the office, the Chief was chain smoking more than usual. This clearly was not part of the plan. A few years later, as Arabs reeled from the backlash from the September 11 attacks in the US, the Lebanese again set out their stall with gusto.

Gulf tourists may have been unwelcome in their usual stomping grounds but Beirut, with its new and gleaming downtown, had just come online and suddenly Lebanon was the place to holiday. We spoke their language and we knew what they wanted. By 2006, the Syrians had gone and things were really looking rosy. I once again found myself by chance at the ministry, chatting with the debonair Joe Sarkis, the first post-Syrian minister, and his director general Nada Sardouk.

The summer season was only weeks away and the talk was of boutique hotels and other projects that would give Lebanon a truly international edge. A few weeks later that also went up in smoke. But the Lebanese are nothing if not resilient. Last year the country smashed the magic 1 million visitor mark and you could not find a seat on a plane, a hotel room, hire car, table, mobile phone line or even parking space in Beirut in August.

The Arab world once again came to chill out, shop, get married and recuperate from liposuction. We can expect the same this year; that is, if Hizbollah and the Israelis behave. So why do I think Fadi Abboud's quixotic initiative "to push towards an advanced, competitive, sustainable and responsible tourism industry to facilitate continued development through the tourism industry", will go nowhere?

To do anything meaningful, he will have to fix the roads, improve traffic laws, clean up the environment, regulate prices, allow charter flights into Beirut, reduce the cost of phone calls and speed up the internet. He will have to spend millions on an international advertising campaign complete with a world-beating logo. He will have to retain the services of a PR agency to fly out groups of travel writers.

If he can't do that, he might as well save his money. They love us anyway. Michael Karam is a freelance PR and media consultant based in Beirut