While Lebanon fails to lure the usual summer tourist crowds, the industry adapts to survive
Five years have gone by since Lebanon topped The New York Times’ list of must-see places in 2009, while Beirut was named one of the liveliest cities in the world by Lonely Planet that same year. It was the summer that followed the Doha Accord of 2008, which ended a political gridlock and produced both a consensual president and a unity government. This saw the number of visitors swell from 1.3 million to 1.85 million and then to 2.16 million in 2010.
However, the tables soon turned, the situation changed and tourism lost momentum: 2011 saw visitor numbers drop by 23.6 percent in comparison with the previous year. The Arab Spring, particularly the Syrian crisis and all it entailed, victimized the tourism sector, which had to endure the effects of travel bans from GCC countries. The downfall carried on in 2012, with a further 17.47 percent decrease and another 6.69 percent in 2013. Lebanon only welcomed 1.27 million visitors last year and 2010’s eight-billion-dollar profit is now something to fondly reminisce.
Moreover, 2013 also marked the year when European travelers (433,990) to Lebanon outnumbered their Arab counterparts (402,080) for the first time. In January 2014, Lebanon’s Ministry of Tourism released figures that drew a very grim image of the country’s most prized sector: tourist arrivals at Beirut airports dropped by 6.6 percent in 2013, when compared with 2012, and by 40 percent on a cumulative basis since 2010.
Besides, a significant number of restaurants and cafés has closed shop in Downtown Beirut due to high rental costs. A report submitted to Solidere’s general assembly states that, at the end of 2011, the amount of unpaid due rent was approximately $33 million and, at the end of 2012, that amount went up to $38.7 million.
For a country that labels itself “a touristic country”, this is no small news. The tourism industry accounted for 20 percent of the GDP in the two decades that preceded the Lebanese Civil War. Since the end of the war in 1990, the sector has managed to revive gradually, but a return to pre-war levels has proven to be an elusive goal; until the record-breaking 2009-2010 streak, that is. Still, tourism remained one of the core sectors in the country and continued to grow.
When in a sinking ship, you expect the crew to dump some of the cargo. The local tourism industry expected any urge tourists might have had to visit the country to fade away with daily news of car bombs, kidnapping and armed clashes. Therefore, they had to get into survival mode and that meant austerity cuts. “In any difficult economic situation, similar to the one Lebanon is going through,” notes Amal Khoury, communications manager at Beirut Waterfront Development, “the communication and marketing budgets are the first to be affected, especially when bad economy is combined with political insecurity and terrorism threats.”
Tony Habre, CEO of Add-Mind, the company responsible for the communication of beach resorts, Bonita Bay, White, Iris and Caprice, among others, claims: “Tourism companies have changed their approach in the sense that they conduct market studies and research in order to be more cautious and to dedicate careful attention to budgeting for communication and advertising.” He goes on to explain that these companies have found solace in social media, where they can advertise and communicate their messages or promotions for free and reach a market beyond Lebanon.
Making the best out of a bad situation. With tourist numbers dwindling, Lebanese tourism industry players were faced with two options: cut their losses and close up, which many actually did, or find themselves a new target. But who would want to travel to a country where safety is compromised? The industry turned its focus to the Lebanese themselves; not so much the ones already living here, but rather expats scattered across the globe. “Lebanon is a country of four million residents and 12 million expats,” notes Sara Assaf, general manager at advertising agency, Intermarkets, “so emigration is at the core of Lebanese society.”
It was the Ministry of Tourism itself that spearheaded this shift in target with its flagship campaign urging expats to ignore travel warnings. “They say ‘Don’t Come to Lebanon’, but is there a more beautiful place than Lebanon?” the TVC asks. “This was the main newspaper headline when some Arab countries decreed a travel ban to Lebanon for their citizens,” notes Joe Ayache, group managing director at Impact BBDO, “so we decided this could be a great opportunity to play reverse psychology and prove the opposite.” The famed campaign was Impact BBDO’s brainchild, and according to Ayache, targeting expats is actually easier than a regular campaign aimed at tourists: “It is easier to convince someone who has a reason to travel, but is having cold feet about it because of [the situation] than someone that is not considering traveling to Lebanon at all. They will come having experienced some degree of the supposed danger, while others may not cross this barrier.” Ayache also notes that targeting expats is not a novelty concept for Impact BBDO, pointing out that the common factor for all communications done previously was that they were targeting mainly Lebanese expats in Arab countries in priority and Arab nationals, since these profiles have an impulse reaction to book swiftly and visit their homelands or their beloved destinations.
Traditionally, to create a tourism-related ad campaign, a brand must “show the particulars of the country to the target [audience] that does not know them (archaeological sites, shopping, nightlife, accommodations, etc.), then create a unique positioning and a promise that differentiates it from any other destination in the world,” says Ayache. He cites Cyprus as an example promising its visitors sun and sand.
Communicating with expats, however, is a different story. Ayache breaks it down to three steps. First, you incite nostalgia. This is done by using a certain set of “codes” in communication material: these include visual codes, such as imagery and footage showing the Lebanese landscape (the mountains, the sea, the Pigeon Rock, etc.), as well as audio, which typically includes music by Fairuz or Wadih El-Safi. Assaf calls these “clichés imagery of Lebanon”, and goes on to say the message must stretch to be more authentic and personalized. “Expats, in general, and the Lebanese, in particular, have a soft spot toward anything related to their homeland,” she adds. “The emotional chord is played to its maximum pitch,” notes Ayache. “This is mainly witnessed with music, which hits an emotional string, coupled with some deep insights about how the Lebanese enjoy life, behave, live, eat, dance, etc.” Secondly, you help them overcome their fears. Impact BBDO crafted another campaign for the Ministry of Tourism, this time telling audiences (specifically, Lebanese expats): “They say Lebanon is insecure, but there is no match to the feeling of security you get in the arms of your loved ones.” The slogan was naturally accompanied by an imagery of families and friends hugging at airport arrival terminals. Thirdly, you base your communications on new offerings. For example, rafting the Orontes river. This is an approach that the Ministry of Tourism itself is adopting. It was announced at the Arab Travel Market 2014 in Dubai that it is finalizing a promotion plan involving several ‘Travel to Lebanon’ packages for the summer. A senior ministry official says the packages would target secure areas such as Batroun, Jbeil and other cities in Mount Lebanon. They will focus on eco-tourism, which is not the usual sector promoted for tourism in Lebanon. This serves to reposition Lebanon beyond its traditional sales pitches, rather than the nightlife hub and legendary party city or the place where “the mountains meet the sea” and even more than the archeological wonderland it is often celebrated as. The campaign is called “Live, Love, Lebanon”. It involves a new website and allows visitors to access any village in Lebanon and take advantage of special tourism packages for a duration between three and six days. The promotional video for the campaign, produced by M&C Saatchi, features footage shot of Lebanese citizens enjoying their time in their country doing simple pastimes such as jogging, cycling or enjoying the food, and others with more extreme activities, such as paragliding. “You will end up with a new idea of Lebanon based on these three components,” asserts Ayache.
Add-Mind’s Habre describes expats as “the market sector that is already aware and concerned about the happenings occurring in Lebanon, yet they have experienced foreign ambiances and feel nostalgic to return to Lebanon”. The Ministry of Tourism has come to rely heavily on the diaspora; minister of tourism, Michel Pharaon, even went as far as considering their visits to the country a “national duty” during the Arabian Travel Market 2014. This approach went beyond the tourism industry and other brands jumped on the expat wagon. Notably, Almaza Beer’s campaign. The local beer brand is somewhat of a Lebanese cultural icon and Intermarkets, the agency that handles Almaza’s communication, always draws on social trends and cues. Last summer, it offered consumers an unusual prize. While traditional promotions offered tickets to people to leave their country for a vacation, Intermarkets built an offer in which 50 tickets to Lebanon from anywhere in the world were up for grabs.
“Lebanese expats never forget the feel of home; they have this persistent urge to always come back and spend time with families and friends,” notes Intermarkets’ Assaf. It should be noted, however, that while this campaign had an expats-based theme, the target audience was people living in Lebanon, not expats themselves. “The amount of engagement was amazing,” says Assaf. “People were not only buying Almaza bottles to get free tickets, but were also taking our campaign visuals and slogans and twisting them on every occasion to suit the happenings in Lebanon during that period.”
While many brands just started down this path, one company has been placing expats at the heart of its communication for years. Middle East Airlines (MEA), the country’s only airline, has always tugged at the patriotic heartstring. “The cedar on the plane makes Lebanese people feel at home at any airport in the world,” says Aline Baddour, deputy general manager at Horizons FCB, the agency that communicates on behalf of MEA; a responsibility Baddour does not take lightly: “It’s a big responsibility communicating for MEA, because you have to maintain the image and always have to communicate safety and transparency,” she stresses. “The campaigns are always patriotic and always boast slogans, such as ‘Keeping the Cedar High’ or ‘Nothing is Higher than Our Cedar’, referring to the cedar that is painted on the actual planes. As Aline Baddour would put it: “MEA always has the Lebanese in mind, just like the Lebanese have MEA in mind.”
Looking inward. It wasn’t all doom and gloom, however. In the midst of the touristic quagmire, Byblos International Festival (BIF) reported a fruitful period. “The 2013 season was one of the best since the turn of the millennium, regarding the attending public,” notes Raphael Sfeir, legal consultant and member of the festival’s organizational and artistic committees. “We welcomed more than 60,000 visitors, compared to an average of 35,000 to 45,000 per year in the past decade.” But how exactly did BIF, one of the biggest and most renowned festivals the country holds every summer, achieve such a lucrative season? According to Sfeir, the answer is in our own backyard. The festival shifted its focus inward. “We did not reduce our communication budget,” he assures, “but we had to target a new public due to the absence of foreign or Arab tourists or visitors. We, instead, focused on the Lebanese public, as well as Lebanese expats.” As much as 45 percent of the crowd that attended the festival were Lebanese expatriates that came home for vacations, notes Sfeir.
This strategy is hardly a secret; other brands have cracked the code as well. Add-Mind’s portfolio includes a wide range of brands, notably nightlife heavyweights such as White and Iris. Habre discloses that the company does not single out any specific group in its advertising. “Our campaigns aim to promote the entertaining factor available in Lebanon to Lebanese citizens and international tourists alike,” he says. “It targets a wide audience from Lebanese living in Lebanon, Lebanese expats abroad to even non-Lebanese from all over the world. So, basically, we’re aiming at any and all individuals looking to have a great time.”
Habre goes on to assure that, while Add-Mind does, indeed, hope the codes within the campaigns relay a sense of nostalgia for Lebanese expats to drive them to come to Lebanon, the visuals, language and emotions that their communications evoke are that of an entertaining and amusing atmosphere that is associated with the venues they represent. “It is important that we portray that anybody and everybody can experience these emotions,” he states.
Amal Khoury of Beirut Waterfront Development, the developer behind Zaitunay Bay and Le Yacht Club notes that, as local developers, their main target is Lebanese families in Lebanon. Zaitunay Bay has undeniably become a premier destination and that resulted in the venue only being slightly affected by the decline in tourist footfall, although Khoury does not deny “the decline has been ironically compensated for by Syrian nationals that have been relocating to Lebanon since the break of the war in Syria in 2011.”
Looking inward in terms of targeted clientele has been proven to instill stability and consistency to ensure an establishment’s survival in uncertain times, says Ziad Kamel, treasurer of the Syndicate of Restaurant Owners in Lebanon. He goes on to point out the paradox that lies in the weak activity of establishments in Downtown Beirut versus the added activity in establishments in the Metn area that rely on local customers.
The silver lining. Various sources have been announcing that the worst is behind us. On May 9, Lebanon came in sixth on a list of “Nine Places You Absolutely, Positively Must See Before You Die”, published by The Huffington Post in honor of its website’s ninth birthday. It is worth noting that the list was compiled based on readers’ votes via Facebook. In addition, Saudi Arabia has lifted its ban on travelling to Lebanon and tourism minister Pharaon is expecting a busy season. “There is a new atmosphere of stability and respect for institutions,” he declared at the Arab Travel Market 2014. “There is no reason why there won’t be a revival of tourism.” A revival does, indeed, seem on the way, albeit in a different direction. The industry seems to be reinventing itself according to some observers. “Despite the sad closures of certain hospitality related outlets between 2011 and 2013,” notes Khoury, “lately, we have witnessed the emergence of a new trend in hospitality business, which is specialty stores: gourmet restaurants, owned and managed by chefs with not more than 30 seats, and boutique hotels…”
“The [2012 to 2013] tourist season has proven that the tourism crisis in Lebanon is mostly a crisis of a certain model – one that relies on wealthy tourists that tend to raise the prices of domestic assets,” wrote Mouhamad Wehbe in the English version of Al-Akhbar newspaper in September 2013. And it seems that, while the country lost its wealthiest visitors a couple of years ago, survival now lies in targeting a specific, niche market.
Les Terraces de Abdelli, a resort ten minutes outside of Batroun, is still – as of May – in the works. Yet, the people behind the project already know they want to set their venue apart and avoid competing with many established resorts in the country. They want to target a niche. “We want to create a space that is unconventional, where people get together, share ideas and become one with nature and themselves,” affirms Karim Okais, project manager of Les Terraces, which is a family business owned by his father, Dr Nabil Okais. The venue will include a restaurant, a vineyard and six old-school Lebanese houses renovated into a hotel. What will set it apart, however, is the fact that it will be hosting cultural events and has its own philosophy club.
Having a specific target market, “cultured people who are also looking for nature”, as Okais puts it, dissociates the project from the tourism industry at large. “So we’re not worried about the current situation,” he assures. But are we getting ahead of ourselves? Last year, former tourism minister Fadi Abboud was optimistic about the industry at the Arabian Travel Market at about the same time as one of Lebanon’s best-known hoteliers, Mazen Salha, who expressed high hopes for a strong summer in 2013, with the return of the Gulf, and specifically Saudi, clientele. Yet, the reality fell short of expectations.
Take it outside. While niche market strategies have proven successful for many venues in Beirut and the rest of the country, it is unlikely to work for large venues that strive to get as many patrons as possible. Companies behind such venues have found a loophole: instead of luring expats back into Lebanon with elaborate campaigns, they brought their venues to the expats. Particularly, the ones in the UAE. MAD was the first venue from Add-Mind to throw anchor in Abu Dhabi back in 2000. White and Iris followed and were established in Dubai. Lebanese expats and Arab nationals alike are already familiar with these names from Beirut; all of which make these venues an instant success.
However, Add-Mind is not stopping here, it is also planning to open a number of venues in the Gulf region, as it believes that, as developed as Dubai has become, there is still plenty of room for growth, since there are many concepts that have not yet made it to the wealthy emirate; small cozy bars are one example. With Expo 2020 on the agenda and nearly 60 hotels in the pipeline, Dubai seems poised to draw more investment into the nightlife sector.
Other venues that have taken their businesses overseas include the famed Music Hall, which opened its doors to patrons in January 2013. Plans to open in Qatar were set for 2009, but were subsequently put on hold due to the financial crisis at the time. Music Hall became a franchise in 2008 and its founder, Michel Elefteriades, aka the Emperor of Nowheristan, confirms that there has been interest expressed in the concept from cities across the globe, even as far afield as São Paulo, Brazil. He goes on to note that, with regards to expanding the Music Hall franchise, his eyes are set on Europe, possibly Paris or Berlin. Elefteriades asserts there will be a Music Hall in London within the year.