Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Lebanon vs. Syria: The battle to be the region’s playground

Commentary – Executive magazine

Unlike the heady summer of 2006, this year’s season is hardly a memorable one. It was back to business as usual, and as the summer winds down and tourists pack their bags to head home, the tourism sectors of Lebanon and Syria are no doubt pleased there actually was a summer season.
That Lebanon needed a calm summer far more than Syria is a given, particularly following the July war and the ensuing 18-month political debacle. But Syria has also benefited from greater stability in Lebanon, especially when it comes to attracting tourists from the West, who have a tendency to lump the Levantine countries together and avoid the region if there is a crisis.
Both countries were therefore lucky that the May clashes and the resulting Doha Agreement happened when it did, giving ample time for tourists to plan a summer visit.
The big difference between Lebanon and Syria’s tourism sectors however is that Syria is beating Lebanon hands down when it comes to attracting tourists.
Earlier this year Syria made the sound decision to advertise in the Gulf - bar Saudi Arabia -and the county is resultantly chockablock with Khaliji (Gulf) tourists, reflected in the joke circulating around Damascus that if you want to get a taxi outside any of the major hotels you have to wear a white jellaba or otherwise you’ll never get a ride.
The other noticeable difference is that Syria is getting tour groups by the busload, sweating their way around Damascus’ old city and the country’s numerous historical sites. Indeed, sitting in the lounge area of a hamam after a rigorous scrub one sultry August afternoon, I was taken aback by a dozen South American tourists that swarmed in and started snapping away at everything in sight. My fellow hamam clientele also seemed a little bewildered, with a chap opposite me rolling his eyes. But as soon as all the ajnabi (foreign) tourists left, he then thrust a camera in the hands of a hamam attendant to take a photo of himself bedecked in towels, and then asked me to join him. Ahmed, as he introduced himself, was from Libya and marvelled at what Syria had to offer, regaling me with his trip around the country.
Lebanon on the other hand doesn’t seem to be doing much to attract tourists other than appealing to expatriate Lebanese to come home for the summer. True enough expat Lebanese spend a bundle when they are over here, as a trip any night of the week to Sky Bar and downtown shows, but Lebanese returnees with foreign passports aren’t exactly tourists, particularly as most stay with friends or family. And while Khalijis are back on the streets of Beirut, the tour groups are conspicuously absent. It is quite clear Lebanon needs to develop a tourism plan and start marketing the country globally.
After all, if tiny Dubai with just shopping malls and flashy hotels can attract 6.4 million tourists a year, then Lebanon can surely boost figures from an estimated 1.5 million, especially if a modicum of stability prevails.
Lebanon has much to offer, and has a clear advantage over Syria when it comes to quality accommodation, restaurants and services. That isn’t to say that Syria doesn’t have the latter, but the country is desperately short of hotel rooms, reflected in a supply gap of 2 million nights per year in the four to five-star range.
But while Lebanon has few plans to boost tourism numbers, Syria aims to turn the country into a prime tourism destination, with 377 investment projects underway worth some $3.3 billion and international chains clamoring to get in. Damascus has also offered three huge locations for tourism development that are expected to attract up to $15 billion in investment.
How successful Syria’s tourism developments have been so far is reflected in the stats, with tourism numbers surging from 2 million in 2004 to some 4.6 million last year, spending $2.8 billion and accounting for 14.5% of the country’s GDP. Of the tourist numbers, 73% were Arabs, a figure that has increased 15% since 2005, and some 500,000 were from Iran, predominantly coming on pilgrimage. As Faisal Najair, director of Damascus’ Tourism Department was quoted as saying: “We hope to make Syria a resort for all Arab and Gulf tourists.”
With such developments underway, Syria could soon surpass – if it hasn’t already – Lebanon as the preferred destination in the Levant for higher-end tourism and even tourism of the more dubious kind. According to reports, the number of super nightclubs in Damascus has soared in the last three years from 15 to 40.
It’s time Lebanon, for once, took a leaf from Syria’s book if it wants to remain the region’s playground, as well as give the economy a much need boost.

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