Big discounts for airline tickets, hotels and shops in a mountainous coastal country in the Mediterranean probably sound like a great idea to attract tourists – but apparently not if the place is Lebanon.
Two weeks into a 50-day nationwide discounts initiative launched at the beginning of the year by the Tourism Ministry  in a bid to boost the country’s ailing services sector , Lebanon’s luxury hotels and shopping thoroughfares remain relatively empty.
“Frankly, the tourists and visitors did not stop coming to Lebanon over the past two years because prices are elevated. They have been avoiding Lebanon because of legitimate security and stability concerns,” Nassib Ghobril, head of research at Byblos Bank told The Daily Star.
“Ten years ago we had successful shopping festivals during the offseason that were accompanied by media campaigns targeting expatriates as well as Arab nationals. But we had security and stability at the time, and the festivals and accompanying campaigns were based on that premise,” Ghobril said.
The number of tourists that visited Lebanon in 2012 fell more than 17 percent from 2011 and 37 percent below the levels recorded in 2010, according to the most recent figures. The number of visitors from Jordan, Kuwait, the UAE and Turkey fell between 19 to 44 percent each.
Head of the Hotel Owners Association Pierre Ashkar said in a statement that the shopping festival did not produce the desired results.
“The decision to launch the shopping festival was taken in a hasty way by the Tourism Ministry,” Ashkar added.
He stressed that usually a large media and TV campaign is launched before the announcement of the shopping festival.
Ashkar noted that tourism in Lebanon usually depended on the Arab Gulf nationals , but their absence in the past two years has dealt a severe blow to this sector.
But Ashkar believes that the reports of withdrawal of foreign investments in Lebanon are a bit exaggerated because hotel income is not only generated through room occupancy but also via property investments.
“Any real estate investment in Lebanon is usually profitable” the hotel magnate said.
Many hotels have expressed displeasure with the falling number of tourists and visitors.
The Four Seasons hotel in Ain al-Mreisseh has dropped prices for rooms, but with no noticeable result.
Bookings are now at 30 percent, whereas they are normally at 60 percent this time of year. Most of the guests are in town for business, not tourism, said Roula Mansour, who works in reservations at the hotel.
Le Gray, in Beirut’s central district, has also dropped its room fees in an effort to attract guests. But the hotel’s marketing manager Hilal Saade said he was frustrated at what he sees as a lack of coordination in implementing the initiative.
First, he said Le Gray was not invited to the meeting with the minister in December. He added that they were later sent an email with a link to the participating hotels that were offering packages with Middle East Airlines, which didn’t include Le Gray.
As a result, he said, “We created our own 50 percent package, which we sent to tour operators in town.” So far, the revenue is similar to what they experienced last year. As for the initiative, he said, “It’s a good idea, but it needs to be more organized.”
In Downtown, high-end boutiques display “50 percent off” signs in their windows, but customers are few.
The streets are empty, and many shops have closed because of slow business . Ets. Nakhle is selling its evening gowns for half price, and vendors say prices can’t go any lower given the area’s high rent.
Last year, they say they were getting much more business selling at just 25 percent off. Down the street, the linen store Frette is also selling for 50 percent off, but the store is empty.
At Patchi the gourmet chocolatier, also selling goods at up to 50 percent off, vendors await customers with samples of candy in their crystal bowls. They say business is much slower than usual this time of year, blaming the slump in sales on weather and the security situation.
“The first step toward reassuring would-be visitors and tourists is to restore security and stability in a way to bring back the confidence and accompanying comfort level of potential tourists,” Ghobril suggests. “I certainly hope the ‘50 percent discounts’ campaign helps, but it would have been even more helpful if it was part of an overall national rebranding campaign, given the battering that the country’s image has taken over the past two years.”
By Brooke Anderson