By Lubna Hamdan
InterContinental Hotel Phoenicia is helping Beirut regain its crown as the Middle East's most captivating destination
After recent years struggling to maintain its grip on internal security, Lebanon’s shaky economy is bouncing back, despite an influx of over one million registered Syrian refugees having slowed down its economic growth from eight percent to a 1-2 percent range in 2011-16.
To the surprise of many, the country’s tourism industry, which endured 15 years of civil war, is especially positive. Hotel occupancy rose 25 percent in 2016 compared to 2015, reaching 65 percent in summer months, according to the Ministry of Tourism.
It had the highest level of tourists since 2011 in 2016, at 1.7 million. Where do most of them go? None other than Beirut, where the biggest spenders are Emirati and Saudi tourists, according to the Global Blue Tourist Spending statistics for 2016, while visitors from Europe and America also rose by 16 and 33 percent respectively thanks to security stability and a reformed government.
But it is also the hotels that play a large part in bringing back tourists to Beirut. One such hotel is the historic InterContinental Phoenicia, where occupancy rates topped 100 percent during Eid Al Fitr and the recent Eid Al Adha.
General manager Dagmar Symes said the positive results are an indication that Lebanon’s tourism sector is booming once again.
“We strongly believe in reaching out to the world to overturn people’s preconceptions of Lebanon portrayed through the media. We’re passionate about sharing Lebanon’s beauty and breath-taking diversity, and to create a long-lasting impression that inspires visitors to return,” she said.
Step inside the lavish hotel and you are sure to come back. Built in the 1960s - Lebanon’s golden era - the hotel boasts a majestic interior comprising red carpets, massive chandeliers, indoor fountains and robust Roman columns. Its luxury comes as no surprise considering it welcomed the world’s crème de la crème from kings and queens to world leaders and celebrities.
What is fascinating, however, is the fact that it closed down during the civil war, which ran from 1975 to 1990. Despite having been damaged to a great extent, it reopened its doors in 2002, coming back bigger and better, literally, with the addition of a residential tower.
Located near waterfront promenade Zaitunay Bay, it boasts 446 rooms and suites that overlook sea views complemented with clusters of luxury yachts. Its rooms are spacious, too, with floor to ceiling windows allowing for plenty of day light.
The interiors, while modern, echo a classic style, with elements such as chaise lounge sofas and a light colour palette. Each room comes with a work desk that comes in handy for business travellers.
Its main restaurant, Mosaic, encompasses floor to ceiling windows that look out to sea and allow for plenty of day light. It is there where we have a fulfilling classic Lebanese breakfast: cheese manakeesh made from in-house baked Arabic bread.
We are served by a waiter at least 70 years of age, dressed in traditional Lebanese costume and a warm smile, despite appearing noticeably exhausted.
The air at the InterContinental Phoenicia is somewhat overwhelming, partly due to the paradox of our lavish surroundings and the war-torn buildings that neighbour the 5-star hotel.
Outside Mosaic is an outdoor pool lounge, Amethyste; a vintage-style replica of the hotel’s original terrace, featuring all-white Roman columns and hanging canopy-like beds. Its air is filled with the sounds of French and Arabic accents coupled with the smell of shisha.
From our sun loungers, we could see another war-torn building with visible bullet holes, making our trip feel even more surreal.
Most of the staff at the lounge are young locals who are friendly and quick on their feet. They recommend lunch at the hotel’s Italian restaurant Mondo Caffé. We opt to try it out and order Italian classics such as burrata cheese and spinach ravioli. We clean our plates and go for the ultimate dessert: tiramisu; freshly made with a hint of sweetness.
Following lunch, we head to the hotel’s business centre. Designed in all-wood and brown leather, it has an old-fashioned, traditional feel. It is spacious and quiet, allowing for maximum concentration. The centre also holds a private conference room for intimate meetings.
Once that is out of the way, we choose to hit the spa, opting for a relaxing Indian Kundalini massage, which focuses on the spine. Our therapist uses gentle techniques and hot oils along our seven chakras to increase energy while simultaneously loosening up muscles: a much needed treatment if you’re flying for business.
By this point, we are sure we could spend our entire holiday in the Phoenicia, a hotel perfectly fit for leisure tourists, but also for businesspeople looking for a lavish stay that allows for high-end indulgence too.
Yet behind its extravagant décor and outstanding services, the 56 year old hotel carries something more valuable, or perhaps even unforgettable: the hope that something beautiful can still emerge after years of destruction; that Beirut, while broken, remains beautiful.