BEIT MERY, Lebanon: Better known for the capital’s glittering nightlife and exclusive beach clubs, Lebanon is launching a new, ambitious strategy to promote something entirely different: rural tourism.
“We need to begin marketing not just the country – but destinations” within Lebanon, Tourism Minister Michel Pharaon said Thursday night at an event launching the Rural Tourism Strategy for Lebanon.
“This project highlights all of Lebanon, the incredible beauty of the land and its people.”
The United States Agency for International Development-funded project was unveiled to a crowd of around a hundred industry stakeholders and public officials Thursday evening at Deir al-Qalaa in Beit Mery.
This strategy is not just for one or five years – this is about building for the next 10 years
Drawn up by Beyond Beirut, a non-profit dedicated to rural tourism, after extensive interviews with stakeholders in the tourism industry, including guesthouses, eco-tourism ventures and NGOs, the strategy aims to develop and market Lebanon’s vast tourism potential outside of its urban areas.
“Lebanon now has a clear action plan to further unlock the great economic potential of rural tourism,” said Anne Patterson, acting mission director at USAID, “and to further assert Lebanon’s image as a major tourism destination.”
The 50-plus page plan unveiled Thursday is only a first draft, with a one-month comment period open for tourism operators and the general public to review and make suggestions before the five-year strategy is officially endorsed by the Tourism Ministry.
Touching on a diverse range of topics – from marketing existing destinations and developing new attractions to improving regulations and strengthening environmental and cultural conservation efforts – the strategy takes a long-term view at building a culture of rural tourism among the Lebanese.
“This strategy is not just for one or five years – this is about building for the next 10 years,” Pharaon said.
The new initiative comes as Lebanon is suffering a tourism slump, with regional strife and domestic security incidents scaring off many foreign tourists. The developers of the new rural tourism strategy suggest this is a perfect time to work on developing the industry – especially as the plan places a special emphasis on a different class of tourists: the Lebanese themselves.
While visitors from the Gulf and Western countries are highly sensitive to any instability in Lebanon, the Lebanese, both residents and members of the diaspora, are less affected by the day-to-day situation.
“In light of the current situation where travel bans to Lebanon are affecting tourism in Lebanon, local Lebanese and Lebanese expats living and working abroad are alternative markets,” Martine Btaich, a consultant with Beyond Beirut, told The Daily Star. “They are less affected by the situation because they know it well and have lived it.”
And, while the five-star hotels, luxury shopping and exclusive beach resorts are a main attraction for visitors from the Gulf, planners see an opportunity to expose Lebanese to facets of the country and their heritage that are lesser known.
“People either do not know what is in there and if they know they do not know what to consult or where to go to get the information and how to ‘consume’ or reach the destination,” Btaich said. “Promotional channels to reach out to urban Lebanese haven’t been yet fully explored.”
The strategy highlights a number of existing and potential attractions that can be further developed to appeal to both local and foreign visitors, including eco-tourism, agri-tourism and adventure, wine and religious attractions throughout the country. Organizers said that the key was to build upon the existing successful operations by strengthening them while encouraging growth in new areas and fields to stimulate jobs and economic opportunities in disadvantaged communities.
“We’re not starting from scratch,” Btaich said.
“We need to build on the existing outstanding projects already there.”
While the audience of tourist industry stakeholders attending the launch was supportive and laudatory of the ambitious new strategy, a consistent concern was raised in the panel discussion after the presentation: follow through.
The strategy itself acknowledges that previous strategy plans for the Tourism Ministry had been released with high hopes, only to be filed away in a drawer – a common occurrence in Lebanon due to the political reality and short tenure of many ministers over the last decade.
Pharaon acknowledged these concerns, warning that properly implementing such a strategy would require cooperation not just between the ministry and the private sector, but also with other ministries and the municipalities themselves. But the minister remained optimistic at achieving tangible results, pointing to the success of recent tourism programs, including the new LiveLoveLebanon campaign.
“Within a month, a lot can be handled, but it will take three or four years for other parts,” Pharaon said. “It’s not sufficient just to have a plan, we need to move to projects such as improving guest houses and facilities. ... We have to turn the project into more than just a slogan.”