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Lebanon's 'crazy love' tourist campaign tempts travelers with deals

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Lebanon's 'crazy love' tourist campaign tempts travelers with deals
Lebanon's tourism industry has been declining since 2011 when war in neighboring Syria broke out, blocking the way for about a quarter-million visitors, File Photo by Wael Hamzeh/EPA-EFE

BEIRUT, Lebanon, Nov. 16 (UPI) -- Lebanon's tourism industry gets that the country, mired in an economic crisis, might not be the most obvious destination right now. But a new campaign seeks to tout the huge discounts on offer and "crazy love" for the place.

It's a move aimed to lure visitors back and avoid the collapse of the tourism sector amid the two-year spiral. The steep devaluation of the national currency means there are travel bargains to be had.

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The "Crazy Love" campaign, or "Even in your madness, I love you" as translated from Arabic, was launched this month.

Lebanon's tourism industry has always been a major source of revenue, reaching $9.3 billion in 2010 before uprisings known as the "Arab Spring," wars and instability engulfed a number of countries in the region.

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Tourism started to decline in 2011 when war in neighboring Syria broke out, blocking the way for about a quarter-million visitors, mainly from Jordan and the Gulf countries, who used to come by road every year. With Lebanon in a state of war with its other neighboring country, Israel, Syria was the only road linking it with the rest of the world.

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The tourism industry was badly hit when anti-government protests turned into a popular uprising in October 2019, followed by repeated COVID-19 lockdowns that brought the country to a standstill.

Then, it got worse.

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The Aug. 4, 2020, blast at Beirut port killed more than 200 and destroyed entire neighborhoods, including a booming tourist attraction in Mar Mikhail. A severe fuel crisis peaked this summer, plunging the country into darkness and leading to long queues at gas stations.

Moreover, the escalating political conflict with Saudi Arabia and some other Gulf countries reached an alarming level earlier this month, when they decided to expel Lebanon's ambassadors and ban its imports, ordering their citizens to keep away from Lebanon. Gulf tourists had almost stopped visiting Lebanon for years anyway because of the growing influence of Iran-backed Hezbollah in the country.

'What can we do?'

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But Lebanon's dramatic deterioration did not prevent Tourism Minister Walid Nassar from trying to rejuvenate the tourism industry.

"The ones who love Lebanon will come anyway... We are counting on this," Nassar told UPI during a phone interview. "What can we do? It is either we do nothing or try to do something."

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Visitors traveling to Beirut from Iraq, Jordan, Egypt, Spain, Italy, Greece and Armenia can benefit from a package offered through the end of December that includes an airline ticket, a three-night stay at a hotel and airport-hotel transportation costs at a total starting price of $269 from Egypt and $340 from Europe.

Those countries were chosen in line with an agreement with Lebanon's airliner, Middle East Airlines, which offered almost 80 percent discounts on its tickets. Hotels and guesthouses also provided very low prices.

"If the 280 flights from these countries' 11 airports are full, we could reach 40,000 visitors" by the end of December, Nassar said. "We did everything: offering all kinds of facilities and low prices...but it is not in our hands."

Lebanon, he said, needs stability. Its political leaders need to agree on reforms, and its government needs to work on restoring international confidence in the country and reactivating ties with the Arab countries.

The number of visitors to Lebanon dropped from 1.9 million in 2019 to 414,000 in 2020, according to figures released by the Ministry of Tourism. The number of visitors coming from the Arab countries declined from 574,352 to 112,248 and those coming from European countries from 720,000421 to 177,967 during the same period. Only 6,815 came from Saudi Arabia in 2020, compared to 64,270 the previous year.

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Nassar said the number of visitors increased during 2020-21 by 170% to 180%.

Pierre Achkar, head of the Lebanese Hotel Association, said tourism revenues plummeted from $9.3 billion in 2010 to $3 billion to $4 billion in 2018.

"We are negotiating [with the International Monetary Fund] to give us $2 billion while we are able to secure this amount from tourism," Achkar told UPI.

Thousands of jobs lost

The October 2019 uprising, the mismanagement of the economic and financial crisis, the COVID-19 pandemic and the Beirut port explosion that badly damaged 163 hotels and over 2,000 restaurants contributed to the near collapse of the tourism sector.

Since then, 99 percent of the country's 540 hotels have been partially closed, Achkar said. "Those with 100 rooms kept 20-30 rooms open. They also had to reduce their staff and cost of diesel fuel to operate their generators... just to maintain their businesses."

Thousands of employees at hotels and restaurants have consequently lost their jobs, industry representatives have said.

The biggest blow was the loss over the years of Lebanon's once faithful tourists from oil-rich Gulf countries.

Achkar said the conflict with the Gulf countries began with Hezbollah's intervention in the Syria war in 2012-13 and escalated with the Iran-backed group's smear campaigns against Saudi rulers and its support of the Houthi rebels in the war in Yemen.

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"The crisis with the Gulf [countries] destroyed us and slaughtered our tourism," he said, adding that Gulf investors were behind Lebanon's biggest hotel investments in recent years, including Kempinski Summerland, Four Seasons and Hilton Beirut Habtoor Hotels.

Until the time comes for Lebanon to reconcile with the Gulf countries, the new Tourism Ministry campaign emerges as the only hope to revive tourism and lure back Lebanese in the diaspora, as well as Arab and European tourists carrying hard currency. One U.S. dollar is being traded at nearly 23,000 Lebanese pound in the parallel market, compared to 1,500 LL for $1 in October 2019.

Rich culture

Although Lebanon is no more the "Pearl of the Middle East," as it was widely regarded before the 1975-90 civil war, it remains an attractive spot because of its rich culture, Roman ruins and Ottoman architecture, religious sites, gastronomy, beautiful mountains and landscape, modern attractions and the Lebanese way of life.

"Even if we are losing, we have to maintain this business," Maud Nakhal, director at the leading Nakhal travel agency, which was established in 1959, told UPI. "We are here to stay and will fight to remain and never close."

The agency was badly affected by the pandemic, "even more than the economic crisis," but kept organizing daily tours inside Lebanon and accommodating "loyal" clients, mostly Lebanese living outside the country.

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"Lebanon has become a cheap destination for foreign tourists. We hope this campaign will attract enough of them, as it is a good opportunity to visit the country with such prices and discounts," Nakhal said.

A stay at Bkerzay guesthouse, an eco-friendly village in the Chouf Mountains, offers a healthy restaurant, pottery classes and hiking.

Located about 16 miles from Beirut, Bkerzay is today a favorite destination for many foreigners working at embassies and non-governmental organizations.

Forced to close from March to April because of the coronavirus lockdowns and affected by the economic crisis and fuel shortages, Bkerzay reopened but "in a shy way to keep operating.. and maintain our 65-member staff," said the village's head of operations, Zeina Salman.

"We have to sustain them and our project. It is our daily fight," Salman told UPI. "This project is something we did to stay forever. We will keep going, whatever will happen."

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