BEIRUT: Faced with what they describe as the slowest start in years, communities in Lebanon’s tourism-dependent towns of Bhamdoun and Aley fear a pitiable summer season.
From his tiny real estate office at the heart of the Bhamdoun market, which was unusually devoid of tourists for this time of year, Akram Abul Hosn, a broker, said the season was far below his expectations.
“The season is very, very hard and we should not blame the tourists but our country’s terrible politics and the unprecedented deterioration in public services, particularly electricity and water,” he said.
Abul Hosn, who manages a furnished apartments business, said he had no occupants and few reservations for the rest of the summer. The apartments, he added, used to be fully booked by Gulf nationals for the entire summer.
He said a Saudi family had rented one of his flats for 15 days, only to cut their stay short after two days due severe electricity rationing that exceeded 20 hours a day. “I cannot run the generators 24 hours a day and buy hundreds of liters of water every week. I simply cannot afford it,” he added.
When asked whether he thought the situation would improve later this summer, Abul Hosn seemed pessimistic.
“We have to remain hopeful, otherwise we would go out of business. But taking into consideration the political and security situation I doubt we will see any improvement,” he said.
“The only foreigners coming these days are those who own property in the area and they come to check up on their houses,” he said. “These are more like us locals and contribute [only] slightly to the local economy.”
Khaled Ali, Ali Abdul-Rahman and Salam Ali, three Kuwaiti Bhamdoun homeowners, echoed Abul Hosn’s remarks while sipping coffee and listening to a lengthy Umm Kalthoum song in front of an office they co-manage in the same town.
“Everything is great. Security is steady, and there’s an abundant supply of water and electricity,” all three remarked sarcastically when queried by The Daily Star.
“These services are essential issues for tourism, in fact [even] for a proper life,” complained Abdul-Rahman.
“We are not strangers here. We own houses and come back every year for the summer. But there are almost no tourists,” he added.
When asked whether travel warnings issued by several GCC countries were responsible for the lack of visitors, Salam Ali said it was more about actual security problems that plagued Lebanon over the past few weeks.
“How can you expect tourists to come when even the airport road was blocked,” he said. “Much more than half of Kuwaitis, who are regular visitors in Bhamdoun, would not visit Lebanon,” Abdul-Rahman said.
The families of the three men even went back home after clashes in Tripoli erupted last month. The kidnapping of 11 Lebanese pilgrims in Syria, Abdul-Rahman added, sparked fears that violence would spill over to Lebanon, they pointed out.
“With the exception of the summer of 2006, this is for sure one of the worst years for tourism,” Khaled Ali pointed out, referring to Israel’s 2006 war against Lebanon.
Michel Karam, a souvenir vendor at the Bhamdoun market, said he feared he took a high risk investing money in the business this year.
“This year our risk is high,” he said, explaining that he invested thousands of dollars in renovations only to see business falling to a shadow of what it had been over the past few years.
“If things do not improve in the next two weeks, we will be forced to shut down,” he added, pointing out that rent and other expenses were too costly to bear at the current level of business.
“The summer season ended before it had even started,” said Osta Abou Rjaily, head of Bhamdoun’s municipality. “The borders are closed, a war in a neighboring country, travel warnings, domestic political skirmishes, Ramadan early this summer, expensive fuel ... Everything is against us.”
Firas al-Awar, a reservations officer at Safir, a five-star Bhamdoun hotel, said 90 percent of reservations had been cancelled after the clashes in Tripoli erupted. “Now occupancy remains low, not exceeding 20 to 30 percent,” he added. “It seems that we do not have a season this year.”
Nevertheless, Jamil Zahlan, an Aley restaurant owner, said he still expected a relatively good season, but admitted most of his business was local.
But Kamal Saab, who manages another eatery on the main street in Aley, disagrees with Zahlan. “We are seeing less than 50 percent of the usual business,” he said. “We had started to see tourists from the Gulf, but most left after travel warnings were issued.”
The rather dim view is shared by a reservations officer at Sobh Hotel on Aley’s main street. “It is a very bad season,” he said. “We have no occupants at the hotel right now,” he added.
But pointing to new works conducted by the municipality in the town’s main street, Abou Rjaily said “the pavement was not repaired only for today, the tree was not planted only for this year,” he added. “All I can say is that we are ready. We are ready by all means. If they come we will serve them, if they do not we will serve them next year.”