BEIRUT/JBEIL: A stroll through the millennia-old port city of Byblos on a weekend night delivers a stark contrast to the scene of empty restaurants and thinly populated tourist sites that have prevailed for the last several years in much of Lebanon.
As the heavily synthesized melodies of Yanni floated up from the harbor Saturday night, pubs and restaurants in the medieval-era souks in the center of Jbeil were packed with crowds of Lebanese and foreigners, a sign of strength as the country works to revive the moribund tourism sector.
“We were slowly and dynamically getting out of the crisis in May and June,” Tourism Minister Michel Pharaon told The Daily Star. “In particular, Jbeil has developed touristic assets and has been particularly efficient in this development.”
The Lebanese world community is filling the gap enough to keep us fully booked, especially in the hotel
Though perhaps subdued compared to the height of 2010, when more than 2 million tourists visited Lebanon, the UNESCO heritage site still draws a steady crowd throughout the summer.
While the number of tourist arrivals in the country shot up in May and June, according to the Tourism Ministry, hotel operators say they fell again this month, after a rash of bomb plots were discovered, and largely thwarted, at the end of June.
With the lack of Arab Gulf tourists, Byblos establishments have turned to Lebanese visitors, both local and expatriates, to fill in the gap.
“The Gulf big spenders are missing, bringing down the average check dramatically,” Alice Eddé of the EddéSands resort said. But “the Lebanese world community is filling the gap enough to keep us fully booked, especially in the hotel.”
While other festivals in the country have been affected by the security situation, the stability in Jbeil has enabled the Byblos International Festival to consistently draw in visitors over seven weeks each summer.
Although the festival remains popular, Latifee Lakkis, president of the Byblos International Festival, acknowledged that this year was “not like other years,” due to a dip in consumer spending.
“In general, we take into consideration the finances of people,” she said, and pointed out that this year, more people had been buying cheaper tickets, while the more expensive ones were sold at the last minute.
Lakkis said that the festival relied on Lebanese visitors to fill the seats, with attendees living abroad and visiting Lebanon for the summer. Foreign tourists make up a smaller portion of the festival crowd.
With a variety of international and local performers lined up, ranging from Belgian singer Stromae to local Lebanese musician Guy Manoukian, the festival aims to attract a diverse audience of all ages and from a variety of cultures.
EddéSands credits such diversification and creativity with its success during the economic downturn.
“We are flying against strong winds in stormy weather by doubling up our investment in people, new outlets and by rehabbing the facilities,” Eddé said. “It’s paying off ... otherwise we would be shrinking into oblivion.”
By steadily expanding its network, which includes the famous beach resort a few minutes walk south of the Old City, to include more boutiques, cafes and restaurants at EddéYard, in the town center, the company has widened its appeal well beyond those flocking to Byblos’ sandy beaches. “EddéYard is doing well all year round, even in the worst of times,” Eddé said. “We’re expanding and diversifying our outlets, from EddéYard to the medieval port ‘Al-Mina.’”
The tourism minister remains optimistic that the tourism sector will endure by continuing to grow and develop. “But tourists need stability,” he said.
To encourage this growth and development, and build more resilience into the country’s diverse tourism sector, the Tourism Ministry is launching a new Rural Tourism Strategy Thursday evening. The strategy has a focus on encouraging internal tourism and attracting diaspora visitors to the wider range of attractions that the country has to offer.
“We are trying to help the regions organize themselves and promote their destinations,” Pharaon said. “Lebanon has a very strong potential in many regions to succeed [in] what Jbeil has succeeded to do.”