Lebanon is a boutique destination waiting to happen – but it needs some help

Lebanese holidaymakers are cancelling their summer bookings to Turkey in the wake of the July 15 failed coup attempt. Europeans I get; they are not used to that level of unrest, nor are they comfortable with armed men and tanks on the streets but we Lebanese live cheek to jowl with terror attacks, political tension and rickety infrastructure, so it’s funny that we would let a bit of aggravation on the streets of Ankara and Istanbul stop us sunning ourselves at Club Med in Kemer. I would have thought we’d be the first to take advantage of the inevitable drop in prices. We must be getting soft.

During the civil war, Cyprus used to be the destination for those seeking a bit of sanity, but when peace came in 1990, local travel firms such as Wild Discovery and Nakhal began sending Lebanese, not just to the well-trodden resorts of Sharm El Shiekh, Mykonos and Turkey’s Mediterranean coast, but also to more adventurous destinations such as Cuba, Sri Lanka, Nepal and Kenya.

The problem is the tourists, or lack of them I should say, coming into Beirut. I was going through my files the other day and found an interview I conducted exactly 10 years ago with a businessman who had rented space in the food court of the popular ABC mall in the Beirut district of Ashrafieh just before the 2006 summer war erupted.

Hizbollah and Israel had been slugging it out for a week and as we sat talking we could hear the “crump” of the Israeli bombs falling on South Beirut. We still had another 21 days to go before ceasefire. The owner pointed to a huge TV screen he had set up around a well-appointed, but now empty bar area. “We had 200 people here every night,” he said. “We had the World Cup. People were happy. It was summer. Then Hassan Nasrallah gave us a war.”

Most of the business community blamed the Hizbollah leader for the conflict and the decimating effect it had on the economy and it would be another two years before the tourism sector got back on its feet. There followed three years of plenty, but there has been a virtual drought ever since.

The past four years have been crying out for invention, but the problem is two-fold: we Lebanese can take an idea and fashion it into something gorgeous and fantastic and sell it with charm and aplomb, but if we are being cruelly honest, we are not born innovators. Secondly, with the exception of the central bank, the finance ministry and sometimes the economy ministry, we have not yet grasped the idea of putting competent people in charge of key portfolios.

We are stuck with an outdated tourism model and a tourism ministry that despite all its best efforts is underfunded and is consequently not fit for purpose. Which is very irritating, to put it mildly. As I have pointed out ad nauseam in this column, Lebanon is a boutique destination waiting to happen. It just needs someone to take it by the scruff of the neck.

So if and when the next government is formed, whoever is prime minister could do worse that appoint Kamal Mouzawak as the next tourism minister. A shockingly well-connected social entrepreneur with a taste for the achingly cool, Mr Mouzawak is the driving force behind Lebanese resurgent foodie culture; the founder of Tawlet, which recently was voted eighth in Monocle magazine’s Top 50 restaurants in the world, and the brains behind Beit, a project that encourages the rehabilitation of old Lebanese homes as guesthouses. Almost single-handedly, he has kept Lebanon on the pages of the glossy magazines while no self-respecting travel or food writer will pass through Beirut without an audience. He can make things happen.

And while we’re at it making the country work, we should give environmental engineer Ziad Abi Chaker, who moved mountains to alleviate last year’s rubbish crisis, the environment portfolio; let them do their job and I swear the Lebanese won’t bother going anywhere on holiday ever again.

Michael Karam is a freelance writer who lives between Beirut and Brighton


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