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    Who are we kidding?

     

    The recent fuss over the closure of bars in Gemmayzeh that do not meet legal requirements is simply the product of the triumph of greed over regulation. Clearly, the neighborhood’s residents have rights and, as new Tourism Minister Fadi Abboud has quite correctly said, Gemmayzeh should never have been allowed to flourish into the unregulated jungle it has become. What is of greater concern is that the fortunes of one street are seen as crucial to the success or failure of Lebanon’s 2010 tourist season. If anything, the ruckus surrounding the closures has highlighted Lebanon’s shortcomings in its bid to be a genuine tourist destination.

    Simply, one street does not a sector make. The tourist demographic to which Gemmayzeh caters is mainly expatriate Lebanese wanting to let their hair down when they come home. The tens of thousands of Gulf Arabs who come with their families to vacation in Lebanon do not avail themselves of Rue Gouraud’s wild delights and are unlikely to be crushed by news of the closures. Nor, for that matter, will the trickle of Europeans who are brave enough to endure high prices and shoddy service as they attempt to soak up our cultural riches.

    Funny as it might seem, Lebanon has topped the World Travel and Tourism Council’s annual report for 2010, which predicts a growth in the country’s tourism sector of 11.3 percent. Even more upbeat is Abboud’s own prediction of 25 percent growth. Whether these figures will manifest themselves in the number of tourists – last year Lebanon surpassed 1 million – or in receipts – the sector is understood to be worth $4.3 billion, or 12 percent of GDP – remains to be seen.

    The minister’s bullish prognosis comes on the back of his recent announcement of a four-year plan prepared by his ministry and designed to create what he recently called “an advanced, competitive, sustainable and responsible tourism industry to facilitate continued development through the tourism industry.” But as things stand, despite its healthy figures, Lebanese tourism is woefully unregulated – as we have seen with the Gemmayzeh debacle – with unfulfilled potential.

    Essentially Abboud has two choices: He can either consolidate the market he already has – Lebanon the playground for Arabs and expat Lebanese – or try to woo more discerning, and predominantly Western, tourists whose choice of destination is today determined by a checklist that includes regulation, professionalism, a commitment to “green” standards and security in all its forms.

    Abboud’s recommendations for strengthening the sector are hardly ground-breaking. He has cited the need for more tourist police, a concentration on niche tourism, the creation of a Lebanon marketing board and greater cooperation with the private sector. Sadly, by his own admission, he has neither the money nor the power to do what really needs to be done, and even his modest wish list may prove too ambitious given his limited budget.

    Despite glowing articles in the world press that have proclaimed Beirut as the must-visited destination, and carefully-culled images of the new Beirut that would not look out of place in any modern capital, the reality is that Lebanon is a serious mess. Abboud can do nothing about guaranteeing tourists’ safety on our appalling roads or transform Lebanon from an environmental calamity into a modern “green” nation. We have become so used to catering to our brother Arabs that we have no idea what today’s discerning and demanding traveler wants from his destination. Our current customers are so happy with what they get that Lebanon has not needed to evolve.

    To move out of our comfort zone, Lebanon must allow charter flights into Beirut and make Lebanon a genuine option for Europeans looking for something different. Taxis will need to be regulated, the cost of a mobile phone call must be slashed further, and internet will have to be faster.

    His plan to create a body to promote Lebanon’s image abroad is a step in the right direction, even though one suspects that he does not have the budget to do it properly, hence his rallying cry to the private sector. It will not be enough to once again bombard CNN – if indeed he can afford to – with images of Cedar trees, sunbathers and men in Ottoman garb pouring cups of Turkish coffee.

    Until we have a government that is fully committed to economic reform and regulation, nothing will change. Abboud cannot do it himself. The whole country needs to be on board. And therein lies the real challenge.

    NOW Lebanon
    06.04.2010

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