When there is need for a song and dance: Lebanon's summer festivals ignore revolutions
It can be difficult to be festive in times of uncertainty. If festivity is your business, then this uncertainty can have severe financial complications. As such, rumors have begun circulating that Lebanon’s summer festivals – the aristocracy of the country’s entertainment-tourism calendar – are feeling the pinch this year.
The summer festivals have been particularly vulnerable to political instability. The largest of these events sell themselves as platforms for high-profile international entertainers, unenthusiastic about performing in places where they might be bombed or shot at.
Complicating this business is the fact that, historically, Israel has been fond of launching air and sea assaults on Lebanon in the summertime – most recently witnessed in July and August of 2006. Box office sales are no more immune to domestic unrest.
The origin of this summer’s rumors is obvious. The revolutionary ferment of the Arab Spring has put a dent in international and regional tourism numbers. Now that Syria has been drawn into the cyclone of regional political uncertainty – and with the attendant security blowback felt here – it’s said potential revelers are hesitant to buy tickets.
In this vein Ehdeniyyat, the yearly festival in the northern village of Ehden, has thrown in the towel for this year.
When The Daily Star asked the spokespeople of the “major” festivals how the season was shaping up, however, most still retained an upbeat public relations tone. None sounded particularly apocalyptic.
The Byblos International Festival’s seven-concert series got going on June 25 with a show by one-time Guns’n’Roses guitar whiz Slash, attended by a near-capacity audience.
“Tickets are sold less quickly than last year,” Byblos’ information center manager Jinane Akiki said. “There are [few] fully booked concerts. For example, Julien Clerc’s [Wednesday night] concert sold 3,500 of 4,500 tickets, for now. B.B. King [is fully booked].”
Akiki’s assessment of the box office demographic was impressionistic. “For Slash’s concert, a lot of foreigners attended the show,” she said. “But for Kazim al-Sahir, there are a lot of Arabs.”
Down the road, the Jounieh International Festival got rolling on June 29 but the Charles Aznavour and Chris De Burgh concerts (at the festival’s 5,700-seat venue) aren’t scheduled until the weekend.
“Aznavour’s concert is already sold out,” said Phellipolis Committee member Maria Frem. “There are a few tickets still available for Chris De Burgh.”
She said it’s too soon to say how much ticket sales reflect tourist numbers. “We don’t know exactly” who’s buying the tickets, she said “But we can have a report after the concerts. Many [expat] Lebanese are coming, especially to see Aznavour’s concert.”
The Zouk Mikael International Festival’s three-act program gets started on July 10 with a concert by The California All Star Blues Revue.
“People are hesitating this year” to buy tickets, admitted an organizer who wished to remain anonymous. “Last year’s festival was better [in terms of sales.] As yet, not all tickets [in the festival’s 2,500-seat venue] are sold, as opposed to last year.”
The organizer said the event’s box office demographic has been stable over the years. “Usually, the Zouk Mikail International Festival attracts Lebanese crowds,” she said, “if not Lebanese residents, then Lebanese expats.”
The Chouf’s premiere international event, the Beiteddine Art Festival, is the only summer festival to announce a cancellation – the Irish alternative pop band The Cranberries – though it appears this stems from the band’s decision to postpone its world tour until the autumn.
The festival’s five-act program was launched on June 28 with the Caracalla dance theater’s fantasia “Once Upon a Time.”
“Caracalla is fully booked,” Beiteddine director Hala Chahine said. “We had to add one extra night on July 1. It is a mega production.” She added that ticket sales for the festival “started very good, then they slowed down a bit. Now, it’s picking up again. Overall, it’s the same as last year’s festival.”
The oldest of the country’s summer festivals, and the one furthest from Beirut, is the Baalbeck International Festival, whose five-act program got going on June 29 with a one-night stand by Giypsy Kings spinoff Chico and the Gypsies. Elga Trad, the executive member of the festival committee and in charge of communication, was philosophical about the event’s box office receipts.
“It’s a bit like stock exchange,” she said. “If the situation is good, we sell a lot. If it is less good, [we sell less.] But overall the ticket sales [for the 3,200-seat outdoor venue] are good.
“We have Lebanese, people from the region, tourists from Europe and the U.S.,” she added, saying the festival was selling to more young people than in previous years. “We even had travel operators who bought 150 tickets for Zucchero’s [Thursday night] concert.
“We know we have many young spectators for Zucchero’s concert, from the customers’ profiles from the ticketing office. Mashrou’ Leila [scheduled for July 15] attracts many from the young generations.
“It’s too early to know [whether the ticket sales are the same as last year’s festival or not],” she said, “because the festival hasn’t ended yet. We cannot compare.” – With Jim Quilty