MARKET UPDATE: Lebanon

Lebanon's tourism industry is inevitably intertwined with the region's political situation. It has taken quite the punch as it still contends with the ongoing turmoil and crisis spilling over from neighbouring countries

Downtown Beirut.
Downtown Beirut.

For many years now, Lebanon has been battling unrest and impending threats — a result from the spillover from the Syrian crisis and other neighbouring countries. The unpredictable political and economic landscape has had a direct impact on the country’s tourism and hospitality sector which used to once make up nearly a fifth of the country’s gross domestic product (GDP).

But off late, with international visitors choosing to visit Beirut again and a steady rise in demand in 2017 has resulted in an optimistic outlook for the country which has a lot to offer in terms of historical sites and natural attractions. In fact, Rotana Hotels & Resorts corporate vice president — sales Declan Hurley states that “2017 has been described as the country’s best year for tourism since 1951”.

“The travel and tourism industry in Lebanon witnessed an amazing rebound in 2017 despite a challenging backdrop. In fact, 2017 has been described as the country’s best year for tourism since 1951, with the sector’s contribution to economy recorded at 18.4%, which is expected to increase further by 5.2% in 2018, according to figures by the World Travel and Tourism Council (WTTC).” Hurley points out.

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The positive demand in the landscape is reflective within the hotel market as well, according to TRI Consulting director Christopher Hewett. Lebanon received 1.9 million visitors in 2017 which was a 10% rise compared to the visitor numbers in 2016.

However, despite the growth in occupancy rates, Hewett notes that the other key performance indicators (KPI) such as average daily rates (ADR) and revenue per available room (RevPAR) for the Lebanese hotel market in 2017 did not demonstrate values that were directly proportionate.

“Although this growth in visitors resulted in higher occupancy levels, the market was not able to convert the higher demand into stronger room rates as ADR fell 12% driving RevPAR levels down by 5.2% to US $42,” Hewett explains.

According to STR, the current hotel market has 96 existing properties with 9,429 rooms, and has one property — which amounts to 158 rooms — in the pipeline. This accounts for a 1.7% growth in the industry.

In the first quarter of 2018, STR reported 48.7% occupancy rate compared to the same time period in 2017, ADR was registered at $143.64 which reflected a negative 0.8% change from Q1 2017 and $69.89 RevPAR was generated, which was a 0.9% dip compared to the Q1 2017.

Rotana currently operates two properties in Lebanon including the five-star Gefinor Rotana in the central Hamra area that has 159 keys, as well as the four-star 175-key Raouché Arjaan by Rotana located in the heart of Beirut.

The properties, Hurley states, performed well regarding occupancy, but the hotels faced downward pressure on ADR. The two hotels reported an average occupancy of 74.7% in 2017, an average ADR of $108.9 and an average RevPAR of $81.2.

SOURCE MARKET

Even though the hotel pipeline has hit a bit of a slump and there are concerns and questions regarding safety and security for prospective visitors, the country, Hewett says, has managed to rope in tourists. “Although the market was impacted by the initial challenges of the neighbouring conflicts, Lebanon’s tourism sector has remained resilient and continues to attract an increasing number of international visitors,” he adds.

As a matter of fact, visitors from Europe were the largest source market in 2017 with 33% of visitors, however this was closely followed by Arab visitors at 28% and travellers from the US at 17%.

Hewett points out that upon the review of the hotel segment performance, travellers from the ‘best available rate’ (BAR) segment generated the highest demand with 30% of the rooms nights in 2017, followed by the corporate at 26% and leisure segment registered at 20.5%. Tours and groups increased 15% during the year and reflects the growth in international leisure visitors.

TOURISM INDUSTRY

Lebanon, in 2017, experienced a 4.6% direct travel and tourism growth in GDP at $3.3 billion compared to the world average of $21.5 billion. This includes commodities such as transportation, accommodation, entertainment and attractions. And on the whole, the indirect contribution of the travel and tourism industry was 18.4% of the GDP last year and in 2018, it is expected to rise by 5.2% according to the WTTC.

In terms of employment, one out of 10 jobs accounting to nearly 365,500 jobs directly supported by Lebanon’s tourism industry in 2017 compared to 123,000 jobs generated in 2016. Job output is expected to rise by 5.8% in 2018 and eventually by 2.4% per annum to 492,000 jobs by 2028.

Other countries in the Middle East and across the world like the US and the UAE and Saudi Arabia have also issued advisories for those wishing to travel to Beirut for leisure or business due to the instability in the region and this has hurt the tourism performance.

While the tourism employment and GDP contribution are on a slow upward hill, Hurley claims Lebanon’s history of resilience will see it through this ongoing rough patch.

“It is true that tourism in Lebanon has suffered due to internal turmoil and an extended state of uncertainty, which has also raised questions about security among visitors from both the region and beyond. However, Lebanon’s tourism industry has a history of resilience and despite domestic and regional woes, the country is now emerging as a popular destination for leisure travel, and tourism figures from 2017 are a strong testament to Lebanon’s comeback on the travel map,” Hurley asserts.

In fact, Hurley credits some of the strong comeback to the rapidly growing popularity of Lebanese food in the country and around the globe.

“This is complemented by the country’s growing F&B scene, which is helping cement Lebanon’s position as an attractive gastronomic hotspot owing to its growing mix of innovative yet authentic culinary concepts. The country’s rich offering of dining and nightlife experiences are finding favour among regional and international guests,” he points out.

This year, various cultural and music festivals kicked off in various regions of the country in an effort to entice European and American tourists, the tourism minister in the caretaker government Avedis Guidanian said in a report by Al Bawaba. But the country is anticipating and hoping for better inflow of Gulf tourists to Beirut and other popular regions.

“We can see a very positive development in the number of Gulf tourists if the ban is lifted, which might happen after the formation of the government, as ambassadors of the Gulf States told us,” Guidanian noted.

CHALLENGES AND THE FUTURE

Lebanon might just be starting to see offshoots of a positive outcome for the country in regards to tourism and safety credibility but it definitely has yet to contend with the on-going and steadily growing chaos from neighbouring Syria and the threats of terrorism that looms on its borders. Having accepted one of the largest populations of incoming refugees, Lebanon’s standing in the international community regarding its safety and economic output is a concern for most prospective tourists to the region despite its rich cultural offerings. The turmoil will undoubtedly have spillover effects on Lebanon’s hotel market and Hewett says hoteliers will have to brace for impact in terms of RevPAR and falling ADRs.

“Hoteliers will likely face a challenge in battling the downward declines in ADRs which has hampered the market in recent years. However, with demand increasing in 2017 and projected to grow further in 2018, hoteliers will be looking at ways to stop the slide in rates and drive positive RevPAR growth throughout the year,” Hewett points out.

Hurley, on the other hand, is hopeful for the country’s tourism potential. He says: “The outlook for Lebanon’s travel and tourism sector is upbeat, which will open up a whole new world of opportunities for the local hospitality sector in the near future. Lebanon has phenomenal tourism potential and its growing appeal as a popular leisure destination, not only among Gulf nationals, but international visitors as well, will help create more demand, which in turn, will enable hospitality players to grow and customise their offerings in a relatively untapped market.”

Like Hurley, Hewett notes that Lebanon’s history of resiliency will benefit the country in the coming years.

“Lebanon’s tourism market has historically always rebounded quickly after internal social or political issues or external conflicts and although some of these challenges remain, we believe the hotel and tourism sector will continue to rebound particularly with concerns over internal security being addressed by the various authorities,” Hewett explains.

In the last two years, the Ministry of Tourism has developed a new tourism strategy with a focus on promoting Lebanon as a tourist destination, marketing the country to foreign operators, making the country a MICE destination in cooperation with regional and international companies, encouraging Lebanese expatriates to visit Lebanon often and putting in the investment to develop the digital tools to keep up with the global pace of the evolving tourism industry, the report said.

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