BEIRUT: A different view of the Mediterranean will be the backdrop for Lebanese weddings this summer as a growing number of nuptials are being planned abroad.
Fear of violence and political unrest during the busy wedding season, among other factors, has motivated couples to seek out surer shores in Europe on which to tie the knot, wedding industry professionals told The Daily Star.
“Last year, [Lebanon] lost about 200 weddings abroad. These are the numbers the industry gives us,” said Maria Boustany, spokeswoman for popular, high-end wedding venue Chateau Ruwaiss. “This year, we’re expecting that number to be higher.”
As June approaches, the country’s booming wedding industry is gearing up for another hot summer. Lebanon is notorious for playing host to a slew of marriages crowded into the months between June and September, with fireworks cracking and motorcades blaring their horns nearly every day until the chill of autumn.
But there’s something different about the coming season, and industry professionals couldn’t quite put their finger on it. For one, the number of brides enlisting wedding planners is down. So are guest lists, half a dozen industry professionals said. And one of the biggest trends is the growing cohort of couples booking destination weddings along the coasts of Europe and Turkey.
Popular spots include cities along the Mediterranean in Cyprus, Turkey, southern France, Italy and Spain, Boustany said. She and several wedding planners attributed the rise in destination weddings to the instability experienced last summer. In addition to devastating clashes in Sidon’s Abra suburb and sporadic violence in Tripoli last summer, four bombs went off in the country between July and September 2013, killing 77 people and wounding hundreds more.
Financial factors are also driving couples away, several wedding planners said. A small wedding for immediate family and friends on the French Riviera, for example, can still cost thousands of dollars less than the blowout party couples would be expected to host for all their neighbors and cousins back home.
Nour al-Houda Homsi, outgoing manager at Barakat travel agency, said the company had at least two bookings per week this summer for their Cyprus civil marriage package.
“Definitely, we have more than last year,” she said
Barakat’s package includes the wedding ceremony and a three-day stay in Cyprus. Some of the couples marrying through Barakat plan to make the ceremony their main wedding celebration, Houda Homsi said. That means a cost of $1,500, compared to $30,000-40,000 that middle-income families spend on average for a wedding in Lebanon.
Aside from money and security, those entering into interreligious marriages prefer the ease of civil marriage abroad to navigating the country’s bureaucratic confessional system.
“I think it has to do with religion. If you want to marry someone from a different religion, we don’t have such a thing in Lebanon,” Houda Homsi said.
But the draw of weddings abroad has come at the expense of wedding planners, who are experiencing an unusually slow season, said Mario Nehmeh of Pro-Events Group.
“This year is decreasing because people are traveling abroad,” he said. Couples are also waiting until the last minute to book venues or pick a date, preferring to wait and see if the recent lull in violence continues.
Security is also deterring the Lebanese diaspora – some 14 million strong – from returning home. Many Lebanese couples living in the Gulf and Europe return each summer to get married surrounded by grandparents and extended family members. But the number of expatriates returning home to wed has fallen since a peak wedding season in 2012, Boustany from Chateau Ruwaiss said.
For whatever reason, summers tend to see a greater breakdown in security, which has led some couples to save their big days for the less-predictable weather of October, Boustany said.
Whether due to financial reasons or security fears, many getting hitched in Lebanon have planned modest affairs, choosing smaller venues and inviting less people, wedding designer Carine Mechref said.
“We do big weddings and even their guest lists are smaller,” she said. “They are afraid nobody is going to show up.”
Mechref, whose job requires her to be in constant contact with hotels and wedding suppliers, said that across the industry, businesses had seen a slowdown as couples show more restraint than in previous years.
Zeina Matar from Memories wedding planners said the same. Many brides are turning to wedding consultants to get guidance rather than invest more money in a company that will plan the event from A to Z.
“The season is low this year not only because of the financial situation. Now the brides prefer to take advice from a wedding coordinator than to hire a wedding planner,” she said.
Event planners are also feeling the squeeze of weddings booked mostly for August and September. Muslim couples and some Christians avoid marrying during Ramadan, when friends and family may be fasting.
June is also seeing unusually sparse bookings as brides seek to save the football fanatics in their families from missing a game during the month-long World Cup, said Nataly Chreif, manager of Desire event planning.
“Political instability, presidential elections, the World Cup and Ramadan,” Boustany rattled off. “It all affects us.”