The mild weather is not the only reason one would be forgiven for thinking it is still spring in downtown Beirut.
Cafés and restaurants often operating at near capacity at this time of year remain far from it now. Luxury goods that would normally be flying off the shelves are not. Place de l’Etoile, the heart of downtown, is busy but not booming.
In this part of Beirut, as with many sectors affected by tourism, business owners are feeling the big-handed pinch of the drop in visitors to Lebanon so far this year.
To use just a handful of examples gathered from interviews with staff or business owners in downtown, business is down 20 to 30 percent in the souvenir store Atelier Chalaan, 30 to 40 percent in M and K handbags, 50 percent at Sarya Jewellery and 60 to 70 percent at Petit Café compared with the summer season last year.
Another business largely reliant on tourists, the Teleferic cable car in Jounieh, is down 30 percent from last year but has seen a similar number of customers as prior to 2010’s boom, according to General Manager Eli Boulos.
Stores that serve a Lebanese clientele aren’t hurting as much. Staff members at Coccinelle in downtown said that sales are down 40 percent, though their other outlets in Verdun and Achrafieh, which have a more Lebanese customer base, are doing much better.
According to figures released by Byblos Bank, the number of tourists who came to Lebanon during the first five months of this year is 596,298—down 18.6 percent from the same period last year.
This is bad, but not quite as bad as it seems. 2010 was an exceptional year in terms of tourist numbers, and the number of visitors coming to Lebanon in the first quarter of 2011 was greater than in the same period in 2009, another bumper year.
But what is concerning from these figures is the fact that percentage-wise, there has been an almost consistent decline in tourists coming to Lebanon in 2011 compared with 2010—from a 7.6 percent drop in January to a 29.1 percent drop in May.
Explanations for the downturn range from “domestic political instability and regional turmoil, [to] the kidnapping of seven tourists from Estonia [in the Bekaa earlier this year],” according to Nassib Ghobril, head economist at Byblos Bank. “I think Western tourists have written off the Arab world since early this year,” he said, adding, “As for Gulf nationals, with the turmoil in Syria, they might be concerned that it might spill over here. So I don’t expect the same number of Gulf nationals to be here during the summer.”
Syrian instability is also likely to dissuade tourists who would normally drive to Lebanon, added Rabih Zreik, general manager of Petit Café in downtown. This particularly affects tourists from Iran and Jordan, the latter of which were the top nationality to visit Lebanon in 2010, according to a report by local and regional monthly business magazine Executive.
For many sectors reliant on tourism, the next five weeks are crucial. Now that school terms are generally finished, the country usually witnesses a large influx of tourists over the coming months. However, this year, with Ramadan falling in August, the number of visitors from the Gulf and other Arab countries is expected to be much lower at the end of the summer.
According to Ghobril, Lebanon is going to have a summer that is “dependent on Lebanese expatriates, historically the biggest spenders.” But while he estimates that they will help offset some of the losses this year, they will not do so completely.
“I don’t think we’ll make up for the first half of the year in terms of tourists,” he told NOW Lebanon. “I don’t think we’ll see the same results overall as we had last year or the year before.”
To counter this, some businesses are adapting and implementing innovative ways to attract customers.
Houka The Marbouta restaurant in downtown, for example, has begun hosting Karaoke nights and live bands in response to slow sales at the beginning of the year. “We want to attract more Lebanese tourists and dispel the myth that downtown is just for Arab and Western tourists,” said Public Relations Manager Ali Al Atrash.
Meanwhile, Gordon Campbell Gray, owner of Le Gray, told NOW Lebanon that the hotel has been working hard to promote its image that Lebanon is a safe destination. These efforts, as well as the relative small size of the hotel, are some of the reasons it has performed as well as in 2010, according to Campbell Gray. In addition, to offset an expected drop in business due to Ramadan, the hotel will be offering deals in August that it normally would not.
The Phoenicia Hotel, for its part, has invested heavily in a major refurbishment project, as well as opening the Whisky Mist nightclub ahead of its 50th anniversary. While business was slow at the start of the year, Daniel Weihrauch, the hotel’s director of sales and marketing, expects the second half of the year to be very encouraging.
But the forecasted pickup over the coming months faces at least one major obstacle, namely the impending indictments from the Special Tribunal for Lebanon, which is charged with investigating the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri in 2005. The tribunal is widely expected to indict several Hezbollah members. When its findings are released, which is rumored to occur in the coming days, some fear civil strife. Now Lebanon