Iraqi and Syrian visitors to Lebanon provide tourism lifeline
Faced with an immense decline in tourists over the past two years, Lebanese hotels are resorting to discounts and promotions to lure in more visitors from Iraq and Syria. Wigen Kasper, marketing and communications manager at Hilton Hotels Beirut, told The Daily Star that while it was still early for people to book for the Eid al-Fitr holiday, Iraqis have so far accounted for the largest number of guests at the two Hilton properties in Beirut.
In June, Iraqi tourists topped the list of visitors to the country, comprising 36 percent of tourist arrivals to Lebanon, Tourism Ministry figures show.
Wigen said the increase in Iraqi visitors followed extensive marketing campaigns, as well as field visits to Irbil in Kurdistan to promote Beirut as a tourist destination.
Crowne Plaza General Manager Fadi Sawaya also noted that Iraqis were now among the major guests at Lebanese hotels, although he stressed that more could be done to attract a larger number of visitors.
“I think we need to put more effort into attracting Iraqi visitors by increasing airline routes from Iraq and facilitating airport services upon arrival,” Sawaya said.
Higher Iraqi demand has helped sustain average occupancy rates at the Hilton above 50 percent, and the hotel management is expecting the rate to rise above 60 percent in the coming days.
The number of tourists arriving in Lebanon up to June this year fell by 12.7 percent compared to the first six months of 2012, and 19.4 percent compared to the same period in 2011.
In a bid to attract tourists, hotels started offering big discounts on room rates.
“[Guests can] enjoy a night in one of our luxurious guest rooms starting from $80 per person,” Wigen said in a Hilton statement announcing Ramadan offers earlier this month.
Like Hilton, the Crowne Plaza Hotel is also offering discounts.
“We have launched several packages and special rates to our partners in the Arab world to target clients during this period,” Sawaya told The Daily Star. “Guests are becoming price sensitive, hence we tailor our prices and packages to attract them to our feeder markets.”
In June, the Average Daily Rate, a key hotel indicator, dropped more than 21 percent compared to the same month last year, data compiled by STR Global showed.
But despite offering lower prices, hotels are still struggling to keep occupancy at acceptable levels.
Pierre Achkar, head of the Hotel Owners Association, said this week that hotel reservations for the upcoming Eid al-Fitr were mainly coming from the two conflict ridden Arab states.
“Lebanon continues to suffer collateral damage due to its geographic proximity to Syria. Year-to-date June 2013 hotels in the capital of Beirut have achieved an occupancy level of 53 percent, which is 10 percent lower than the same time last year,” Elizabeth Winkle, managing director of STR Global said in a statement.
A reservation desk employee at a Hamra hotel, who did not wish to be identified, echoed Ackhar’s sentiments, adding that most Syrian and Iraqi clients limit their stays to two or three nights, while GCC tourists used to visit for eight to 10 days on average, particularly during vacations.
“But all we can say is thank God that the situation is not even worse,” he said.
Sawaya, on the other hand, still believed the holidays would bring back good occupancy rates.
“We still think that our occupancy for the upcoming Eid will improve ... ‘Lebanon lovers’ are last minute bookers,” he said.