Lebanon’s hospitality sector  has begun to dismiss employees following a sharp decline in business, a leading hotelier told The Daily Star.
“We are being forced to reduce the number of staff in the sector. Some people were put on unpaid leave and new vacancies are not being filled by new people,” Pierre Achkar, head of the Lebanon’s Hotels Association, said Tuesday.
Achkar refused to estimate the percentage of laid-off employees, adding that “it is still at the beginning but we fear the worst would happen if things continue in this direction.”
He added that some hotels and restaurants are downsizing operations and closing down hotel floors and restaurant branches particularly in areas hit by a sharp decline in tourists over the past few months.
Seasonal employment of part-time workers, who are hired to accommodate extra business in high tourism seasons during holidays and the summer, were cut down by more than 70 percent from numbers employed in the last few years, he said.
Beirut hotels, Achkar estimated, have been down by no less than 45 percent throughout 2012. But the situation outside the capital is even worse.
“In Beirut, we are operating at 55 percent of last year’s business. I would not even discuss the situation in [Mount Lebanon], which is simply disastrous,” he added.
Asked how the business was dealing with the downfall, Achkar said hotels and restaurants were resorting to “crisis management.”
“But we cannot keep managing the crisis for long and there are little signs of improvement. The current crisis has been lurking for a long time.”
While the Tourism Ministry has insisted on spending money on tourism promotion in Europe, Achkar says he is highly skeptical that such initiatives would bear fruit.
“We need to promote Lebanon in the countries still sending visitors including Jordan, Iraq and the Gulf Cooperation Council states,” he said. “We will never see an improvement in European visitors as long as the situation in the region remains fragile.
“How can you convince someone in, say France, that the situation is good and there are no kidnappings taking place?” he asked.
According to a recent report by the Tourism Ministry, the number of visitors decreased by 12.43 percent in the first eight months of 2012.
Compared to 2010, when Lebanon’s tourism sector performed much better, the number of tourists was 33.87 percent lower, the report showed. The number of tourists in 2012 was lower by 140,106 and 505,483 than in 2011 and 2010 respectively.
Meanwhile, the Ernst & Young Middle East hotel benchmark survey showed that Beirut’s top-end hotels saw a sharp 14-percent decline in occupancy in July. Room yields suffered from a 44-percent decline in the same month, the report added.
Nevertheless, aggregate numbers for the first seven months of the year show that occupancy increased by 7 percent compared to the same period in 2011. Room yields were also up by 6.6 percent, the report showed.
Lebanon’s Hotels Association has before dismissed the survey as unrepresentative for not including hotels outside the capital and focusing only on a small selection of high-end hotels.
The month of August saw 114,929 tourists, 26.88 percent less than July, according to the report, which noted that the Muslim holy month of Ramadan fell in the first part of the month.
The same period coincided with travel warnings issued by most Gulf Cooperation Council states.