Accounting for 7.6 percent of the national GDP and providing employment for some 114,000 people, tourism is a major pillar of Lebanon’s socio-economic development, especially at times of financial and geopolitical uncertainties.
Yet, as Fadi Kaedbey, general manager, Ramada Plaza Beirut, noted, in recent years, the country has secured a consistent top spot in the world news due to both its internal instability and the spillovers from turmoil in neighbouring lands.
Adding to that, a dramatic drop in oil prices has affected demand as well as inward investment, and this, coupled with a slight oversupply, led to a fierce competition in the market, prompting industry stakeholders to review their strategies and implement new action plans.
“Although it is easy to get caught up in the headlines, we were surprised by the acceptable tourism demand Lebanon has maintained,” indicated Kaedbey, switching to a more positive note and highlighting the recent shift in the demographic of feeder markets which has put significant pressure on room rates.
“Lebanon has remained very attractive and a top destination for many of our neighbouring countries,” he further explained, disclosing that a healthy geographical mix of guests helped to compensate the decrease in GCC travellers and despite an enormous drop in the market and in rates, the hotel was able to maintain a satisfactory RevPAR index.
Yasmine Eid Maalouf, general manager, Ramada Downtown, Beirut, reported similar trends.
“Though we lost some markets and segments, we have gained others,” she said, admitting that to better adapt to demand, and remain competitive, lower prices were introduced, resulting in a change in the profile of the clientele.
All in all, it is very much the case of status quo for now, suggested Michel Boulad, director, sales and marketing, O Monot, saying that having finally settled in a relatively stable atmosphere is giving the industry a sense of optimism.
“For the first time in years, Lebanon [is seeing] stability in its hotel industry,” stated Boulad.
Fuelling the positivism, 2015 proved to be the second consecutive year with increased arrivals to the country after a major slump in 2011, when figures plummeted to just 1.66 million from 2.17 million in 2010.
Tough full recovery is yet to be achieved, data released by the Ministry of Tourism points to an encouraging 12 percent year-on-year surge for 2015 with almost 1.52 million travellers on record.
While according to the ministry, prior to 2011, the majority of tourists represented heavy-spenders from oil-rich Gulf states, in 2015, for the first time in many years, Europeans, rather than Arab visitors, accounted for the lion’s share of arrivals, making up 33.29 percent of the total, up 12.87 percent year-on-year, with regional travellers grasping 31.67 percent of the market.
Hartmut Grauel, general manager, Coral Beirut Al Hamra Hotel, attributed the changes in the guest profile to the travel ban imposed by GCC countries, noting that stronger demand from other segments, such as Egypt and Iraq helped to offset the decrease in numbers from the high-end luxury segment.
“In spite of the lower average rate these markets produce, our business gained from the volume of room nights […], not solely during the holiday season but throughout the year,” acknowledged Grauel.
“By adapting our rates for this segment based on pre-planned visits, tailoring our product […] through personal sales calls and the support of our local destination management companies, we were able to close a very good third quarter.”
In fact, according to Ernst & Young’s Middle East Hotel Benchmark Survey, compared to 2014’s results, occupancy levels in Beirut already showed a much more balanced picture in 2015, having surpassed the 52 percent mark it had stabilised on since 2012, with slight improvements in both rates, as well as RevPAR.
The hospitality sector indeed seems to regain some vigor, as hoteliers continue to fine-tune their strategies to adapt to new realities.