Lebanon – Christmas time respite fails to dispel tourism woes

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 Restaurants breathed a sigh of relief during the season’s festivities but the sector’s troubles are far from over as slow tourism lingers into 2013.

“The last 10 days of December were good. Occupancy at restaurants improved to a decent 70 to 80 percent and we were almost fully booked for New Year’s Eve,” Tony al-Rami, secretary-general of the Restaurants Association, told The Daily Star.

“But 10 days a year are not enough to sustain a tourism industry. We can only hope 2013 will, somehow, turn out different than we expect,” he added.

Unlike restaurants, hotels reported only a minor improvement in occupancy during Christmas and New Year’s Eve.

“Hotel occupancy only improved during the last few days of December. We are talking about the last two to fourdays, when occupancy increased to around 70 percent,” Pierre Achkar, head of the Hotel Owners Association, told The Daily Star.

Average occupancy rates have been as low as 30 percent for several months, he added.

“Yes restaurants saw extra business, like every year. But this is simply because of the Lebanese way of life. Even during the Civil War when thousands of shells were falling, we were going out,” he said.

The lack of Arab tourists, responsible for some 65 percent of tourism revenues, remains an unbearable challenge for the sector, Achkar added

“We have built a whole economy dependent on tourism, we cannot sustain it by ourselves,” he said.

Many businesses, particularly restaurants, have been forced to close down during the last few months. Tens of restaurants on Downtown’s Maarad Street, a hotspot for GCC tourists, were also set to close by the beginning of 2013. This follows travel warnings issued by most GCC states since last summer.

Amid decreasing tourism revenues and a countrywide economic slowdown, Rami said his association was banking strongly on a Tourism Ministry plan offering 50 days of 50 percent discounts starting Jan. 8.

“We have high hopes for the plan, and restaurants will be playing a big role offering set menus at highly discounted prices,” he said. “Most restaurants have pledged to take part in the plan.”

Hotels and airlines, he added, will be also offering sizable discounts of up to 50 percent to tourists.

In addition to many remarks about the technicalities of the plan and the countries it targets, Achkar is skeptical the plan will help shore up tourism at all.

“The whole issue is political. What you really need is a neutral government that is able to talk to Gulf Cooperation Council states,” he said.

“We have been already offering discounts of up to 60 percent. The only thing left is to actually pay tourists to come,” Achkar added.

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