BEIRUT: A beach club in Beirut may face closure if it is found guilty of discrimination after it was caught on camera refusing entrance to an Ethiopian woman earlier this month, Tourism Minister Fadi Abboud told The Daily Star Friday.
In a video filmed covertly by members of the Anti-Racism Movement and uploaded to YouTube Thursday, an Ethiopian woman can be seen approaching the entrance desk of the St. George beach club and asking if she can enter to swim.
She is told by those on reception that she cannot enter without membership, while a Lebanese man arriving after her is told he must only pay the club’s LL40,000 entrance fee.
Later in the video, an employee is seen saying the club has a policy of allowing domestic workers into the club with no fee, but that they cannot swim.
The Tourism Ministry issued a circular to all beach clubs in April informing them that “equal treatment is to be provided to all customers without discrimination based on race, nationality or disability,” and that “suitable legal measures” would be taken against violations.
Members of the Anti-Racism Movement reported the incident at the St. George to the tourism police’s 1735 hotline number, and the case was transferred to the judiciary.
Jean Ghorayeb, the head of the tourism police, told The Daily Star Friday that the beach club would face a fine, to be decided by a judge.
Abboud said that while he was not aware of the specifics of the case, he would follow it up closely.
“This is very serious, and if they are fined they are risking closure from the Tourism Ministry because it’s totally and absolutely unacceptable.”
St. George could face a fine of between LL50,000 and LL3 million, according to the minister.
“But then it won’t be over. I still have the power to close them down,” Abboud said. “For me, this is pure racism, which I won’t tolerate in this country. If they are found guilty I will be very, very tough.”
Fadi Khoury, the chairman of St. George, issued an apology Friday for the incident, which he told The Daily Star did not reflect “my policy.”
“It has been a mistake and I’m very sorry it has happened, to anyone who has been hurt by this unfortunate incident,” he said. “I am against any sort of discrimination, be it color, nationality, religion or whatever. I will do my best to see that this does not happen again,” he added.
Khoury said employees at the club had not been directed to enforce such entrance policies, but that as for the policy on domestic workers, “it seems to be the way things are run, generally speaking ... that happens in most beaches,” but said that anyone paying the LL40,000 entrance fee should be able to swim.
Farah Salka, a member of the Anti-Racism Movement, said she welcomed both the apology and the tourism minister’s response, but emphasized that it was important that the incident not be seen as a one-off and that St. George not be made a scapegoat.
“We totally appreciate this, and we hope it’s not something shallow,” she said of the apology, comparing it favorably to a lack of response from Beirut’s Sporting Club following a similar incident in 2010 which also showed a black woman being denied entrance. “But it’s all words on paper until we hear that it hasn’t happened again.”
Regarding Abboud’s promise to take a harsh line against the club, Salka said it was important to remember that St. George was not the only culprit.
“We hope they take all the places seriously, not just one,” she said. “We want the Tourism Ministry to have a policy that will be applied to everyone equally and to have a policy that will scare places beforehand and not after it’s happened and been in the media,” she added.
This is the first incident of its kind to be prosecuted following the circular, Ghorayeb said, and the hotline has only followed up on one other complaint, regarding a nightclub’s failure to admit a disabled person.
The tourism minister told The Daily Star that the country’s 70-strong tourism police had conducted around 250 spot checks on beach clubs this year to check on safety as well as discriminatory policies, and added that there had been a handful of similar cases last year.
Salka said she hoped the video would succeed in encouraging other people to call the hotline and report similar incidents.
“We want to encourage other people witnessing such discrimination to call us [or the hotline], so they get thousands of phone calls every month and realize that this is not something that can continue,” she added.