By Massoud A. Derhally
Minister says country hopes to attract low-cost carriers to boost tourism industry hurt by regional unrest
Authorities in Lebanon are in talks with low cost carriers including easyJet and Ryanair about starting operations to the country in a bid to boost a tourism industry that has been rocked by political turmoil in the Arab world, including neighbouring Syria, Tourism Minister Fady Abboud said in an interview with Arabian Business.
"Indeed we are talking to Monarch Airlines, easyJet [and] Ryanair - we're talking to all of them," Abboud said in an interview from Beirut. "But Lebanon's civil aviation will not give them the right to land - they say 'yes you can come from London, but we want 25 extra flights to Heathrow'."
Abboud said he intends to table a proposal at the July 18 cabinet meeting to endorse the plans. UK-based easyJet's only destinations in the Arab world are Jordanian capital Amman and Marrakech in Morrocco.
"I have a complete plan that I want to introduce low cost flights and chartered flights," he said. "The hotels are ready to give special prices. I don't want to reinvent the wheel. I want to do what Dubai did a few years ago when they had a problem, or what Egypt or Tunisia is doing now. You know you can spend a whole week in Tunisia now for €400 in a hotel plus the ticket."
Political upheaval against President Bashar al-Assad's regime in Syria over the past 17 months has negatively impacted Lebanon's economy and tourism industry. Tourism generates as much as US$8bn per year for Lebanon. Public debt in the country reached US$55bn at the end of May this year.
Some local media have reported the number of visitors dwindling by as much as 20 to 25 percent, but Abboud said the number of tourists to the country, excluding Lebanese expatriates and Syrians, only dropped by about 7 percent in the first half of the year.
Violence in Syria has seeped into Lebanon's northern port city of Tripoli with sporadic fighting leaving about 20 dead. Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Qatar and the UAE have all issued travel warnings advising citizens against travelling to Lebanon this year.
"Indeed they have affected us," Abboud said when asked if the travel warnings have dissuaded people from visiting Lebanon. "I think it's all politics - it has nothing to do with security issues. That is very clear. The Americans are not worried about the security of their people, [neither are] the Brits, the French, and the Europeans in general."
Gulf tourists account for about 10 percent of visitors and represent 40 percent of tourism spend, Abboud said. Gulf, Jordanian and Iranian tourists have been replaced by visitors from Iraq, Europe, Syria and Lebanese expats, he added.
The number of visitors to Lebanon last year declined by 7 percent from 2010 due to upheaval in Syria, as many visitors from Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Iraq and Iran travel to the country by road, Abboud said.
"We lost 300,000 tourists - mainly Jordanians and Iranians who used to come to Lebanon by road," Abboud said.
The number of tourists to the country is likely to be about 1.45m, or 10 percent lower than last year, Abboud said. The country had a record 2.2m visitors in 2010.
"I'm trying to start a revolution in this country," Abboud said. "We are nearly not having any chartered flights coming in. You look at the tickets from Europe to this country and you find that a ticket from London to Beirut - that its probably twice the price of say London to Larnaca or London to Amman or Cairo. It's very expensive. If we can fly someone from Europe return for €300 to €400 I think we can increase our tourism by 300,000 people at least."
"It's a 50-50 chance," Abboud said when asked if his proposal would be endorsed by the cabinet tomorrow. "I'm going to make the cabinet responsible," he said, adding, "If you need tourists, we're going to have to fly them in. We cannot fly a tourist at €1000 during this season and expect a lot of tourism."For all the latest transport news from the UAE and Gulf countries, follow us on Twitter and Linkedin, like us on Facebook and subscribe to our YouTube page, which is updated daily.
the reason why low cost airlines are banned from Lebanese airports is not the 25 slots they want in Heathrow, it's the competition they will generate with MEA (if it passes, and Heathrow does grant MEA 25 extra slots, they will never be able to fulfill what they already have because more than half the people will ditch MEA and much better but almost equally expensive BMI, [fish or chicken be damned] and start flying with Ryan Air and Easy jet, especially that a load of these people are connecting to North America, and would welcome the overall lower costs to these connections.
Abboud has a nice plan, but MEA, and those that support it within the government (for free flights) will never approve it... but it's a valiant effort, and he earns a solid B+ for trying
Well, itâ€™s for sure a good idea, but Low Cost flight was started a year ago with AIR FRANCE from Marseille to Beirut, 3 direct flights per week with a price ticket A/R 300 Euros which was very affordable. Unfortunately, they decided to stop these flights next September 2012 because no more than 10 to 20 persons had booked on a big Airbus A320. So the real problem in my opinion is the absence of Package (flight+hotel+tour) for travelling to Lebanon as well as the absence of advertising!! Many friends who lives in Marseille and nearby did not knew about these low cost flights which is so wired and indicating the presence of a major problem.
The way in which the demand for an additional 25 slots at Heathrow can be circumvented is by doing what the low cost carriers always do; fly from aiports other than Heathrow.
Easyjet tends to fly from Luton and Ryanair from Stansted. Both like Gatwick, they both call themselves "London" but neither are anywhere near London. So, what may appease MEA is if the low cost carriers fly from cities such as Liverpool, Manchester or Birmingham. That would suit me fine as I live in Liverpool and would love a direct flight to see my friends in Lebanon!
Just the other day I was looking at flights for both Beirut and Tel Aviv and was surprised at how expensive they were. If they are serious about tourists they need a PR offensive on tourism to Lebanon backed up by cheap flights. If the low cost carriers don't start flying, surely MEA could offer discounted Tourist aimed tickets?