Lebanon’s rural wild awaits return of the rich Arab tourist

By Martin
Jay, Al Arabiya, 15 April 2018

the Syrian war, hotels like mine were even booked to full capacity”.
in the sector is hampered by periods of instability. (Supplied)

Wadih Kanaan, owner of the Aquariam Hotel in Jounieh – a coastal resort once a
hotspot of both high rolling Gulf Arabs and middle class tourists from the

Secretary-General of Hotel Owners in Lebanon is upbeat about recent bookings
being higher but can’t help talking of these golden days before as though they
will never return. “What can we do to bring the Gulf Arabs back to Lebanon?” he
It’s a
question that few have the answer for in Lebanon. The boom years where wealthy
people would bring valuable cash to Lebanon may well just around the corner
though, if only Lebanon can get its perception changed for the better.
Curiously, one sector of tourism in Lebanon may be a driving force to change
the country’s image in the Gulf: rural tourism.
2005, an initiative to promote rural tourism took root but only since the real
effect of the Syrian war was felt in Lebanon in 2013 did the government really
throw its weight behind the idea, driven largely by two individuals – the
government minister at that time and a private sector promoter of hiking in
Lebanon’s mountains.
following year in 2014 the then tourism minister, Michel Pharaon unveiled an
action plan despite what many outside of Lebanon would have imagined were
dangerous times in the country.
the boycott
problems have been here for decades, what’s important is the security
situation. After 2014 when we had the new security situation we were able to
promote Lebanon and then the Gulf states accepted to ease this boycott. Between
2014 to 2016 we had an increase of 24 percent in tourism receipts”, explains
Pharoan to Al Arabiya English “but the [Gulf Arab] tourists still didn’t come
for the last few years and it’s a worry”.
“The new
minister was enjoying a new situation, when he came into office, but then he
decided to go for the Gulf tourists” added Pharoan. “But in fact this hasn’t
worked”, he explains.
reality, three new groups of lower spending Arabs have replaced the Saudis and
Qataris in terms of numbers – Iraq, then Egypt and lastly the Lebanese
Diaspora. In July 2017, 935,365 tourists came to Lebanon, 44 percent of which
were classed as ‘Arab’ representing a five year high.
The boom
years where wealthy people would bring valuable cash to Lebanon may well just
around the corner. (Supplied)
But it’s
not only the Arabs which are driving the trend in Lebanon. “Rural tourism is
working though which can be addressed to European expatriates living in the
Middle East. We made a five-year plan and in the last three years there was a
growth of rural tourism”, says Pharaon.

started as $35 a night but now its peaking at $100 a night. Rural tourism is a
big success. In Dubai you don’t have the mountains and guest houses and you can
eat the labne from the sheep, where you can walk in the mountains. It’s around
100 guest houses. From May to October it’s full” he adds.
period, he says, is important due to the music festivals in Lebanon, around 60
of them with over 400 activities in the villages, where he argues religious
tourism could be promoted.
Hike n
Yet the
mainstay of rural tourism is hiking. In 2007, the Lebanese Mountain Trail
organisation was formed. It claims to be the “first long-distance hiking trail
in Lebanon extending from Andqet Akkar in the north of Lebanon to Marjaayoun in
the south, a 470-km path that transects more than 75 towns and villages at
altitude ranging from 600 to 2,000 meters”.
Btaich, its president speaks of this new sector of tourism – “experiential” –
as now a new dynamic in the market of rural tourism.
imagine that rural tourism now represents more than 50 percent of the tourism
market. Lebanese expatriates are less sensitive to the problems of the region
and rural tourism reconnects them to their country. Now there is a diversity of
guest houses, from the very cheapest to the highest class”.
praising Mr Pharaon’s zeal in launching the “Rural Tourism Strategy”
initiative, she is more critical of the current government towards promotion
and public relations. “Pharaon did a good job in a very short term…but there
needs to have sustainability” she warns.
“We need
stability and we need to break this negative image and this is something that
we in these small organisations are unable to do through our network and PR. If
you look at the Jordan tourism board, they are very active in North America”,
she says.
tourism, claims Btaich is a way for farms to gain extra income by diversifying
to offer accommodation and activities which “revolve around agriculture from
apple picking and harvesting” to cooking classes. For outside investors though,
the guest houses themselves could be areas of growth in the shorter term, but
it pays to chose the area well.
houses is a good are of investment provided that there are efforts made [by the
government] for the promotion of the destination to bring in more people. Some
areas didn’t get the exposure, so some guest houses don’t work as well as other
areas which are better organised and better promoted” she warns.
in the sector is generally hampered by periods of instability, whether it be
guest houses or conventional hotels along the coast. A boost in rural tourism
though may help bring back wealthier Gulf Arab tourists, who, in turn could
bring the investment capital with them. But the government of Lebanon should
rely only on the high rollers, warns Pharaon, but look to new markets around
the world.
destinations need at least 5 to 10 years of stability. Because the main
industrial players in tourism, like the British and German firms, like to build
their own hotels. Lebanon is open for that, but they won’t do it cos they’re
afraid of stability. We’re never had this period in Lebanon. The hotels I
opened when I was tourism minister, were decisions made in 2009”, explains
are waiting for the right signals, which we have now. They were waiting for
security to be right and for the politics to be in place”. “Arabs love the food
heritage of Lebanon in the rural tourism. Now we have an infrastructure for any
tourism – so now we have to look to other countries like China and Russia”.