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Tue 11 Jan 2011 12:00 AM

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Challenging perceptions

Lebanon’s Tourism Minister Fady Abboud says he’s tackling an ‘unfair’ view of Lebanon.

Challenging perceptions

ATN: Lebanon has been pegged as the new ‘tourism hot spot’ — how has this played out this year in terms of visitor numbers?

For me numbers always speak louder than words. So if you take 2010 as a comparison to 2009 we managed to increase in the first nine months by about 17.7% on 2009 figures. We will end 2010 on about 2.2 million visitors. But what is really unique about this little country of mine is that with 2.2 million visitors, our income is more than US $8 billion - which makes it the highest spend per visitor in the world.

ATN: Why is Lebanon such an expensive destination for tourists?

We tend to attract higher income tourists. If you take Gulf Arabs, on average they spend a few thousand dollars a day. Our organised packaged tours represent only 3% of our tourism industry. There is no other touristic destination where package tours are only 3%. Our tourists are freelancers, who pick up the phone, buy a ticket and go.

We are not really marketing it as such. I am working so very hard myself now because I want to get more middle-income people, We are not going to be a cheap destination — people who are after a ‘fish and chips’ destination can go to Syria, Cyprus, Turkey or Greece; but I don’t want it to be a ‘millionaires destination’ either. That is the wrong image.

ATN: How do you plan to cater to middle-income tourists?

We have increased by about 1,000 rooms this year in Lebanon, but in all honesty we have a shortage of good three and four star accommodation. We now have some quite interesting groups like Rotana who are opening and we are trying to attract European brands like Holiday Inn Express and Ibis with three-plus stars.

ATN: What other plans are in place in terms of hotel development in Lebanon?

There are projects for about US $4billion being built in Lebanon. Mandarin Oriental, Kempinksi, and InterContinental are currently being built.

We are also using an international company, Pro Veritas to rate all the hotels, because we want to make sure our hotel ratings are at an international standard. It will take the whole of next year by the time we have finished with all our hotels. We don’t believe that any hotel will have to drop down a star, as we were quite strict as a ministry, but we have chosen to use an international rating company as it’s always easier for someone to see on the internet that the rating was given by an international body. This always helps to compare standards.

ATN: How has the political situation impacted on the tourism sector?

If you read the travel advice from the UK it tells you to be careful etc etc but let me be honest; in the last 20 years in Lebanon there have been no incidents involving tourists in Lebanon to write home about. And I think we are much safer than so many other capitals in the world, whether it’s South America, or even in the Middle East. I would say its one of the safest destinations and I think it’s about time governments’ look again at their travel advice. They are not being fair. I think the situation in Lebanon from a security point of view is more than acceptable and much better than some other places.

ATN: What’s the biggest challenge facing the development of Lebanon’s tourism industry in the coming year?

Just to change this image. Whenever you want to give an example of chaos you mention Beirut, but this is totally the wrong image; and Lebanon now in my mind is among the safest destinations in the world.

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