Lebanon is bracing for a challenging holiday season amid the ongoing Israel-Gaza war and the rising tensions on the Southern border as a massive cancellation trend surges among hotels with various countries urging their citizens to refrain from travelling to Lebanon or asking them to return, which in turn will impact the economy as a whole - particularly the tourism sector, which had witnessed a much-needed revival in the summer.
While the slowdown in international visitors is just one of the war’s economic repercussions on Lebanon, it poses a significant threat to the country’s economy, which was eagerly awaiting much-needed cash dollars.
Neighboring countries face negative effects from the Israel-Gaza war, primarily a substantial decline in tourism to the Middle East. However, among suffering economies, Lebanon is expected to experience the most significant blow, with a predicted loss in the gross domestic product of around 23%, as warned by financial rating company S&P Global.
The rising tensions in south Lebanon, compounded by the ongoing Israel-Gaza war, have dashed experts’ high hopes for the tourism sector amid the approaching Christmas season. NOW reached out to Sireen Amar, head of hotel and accommodation at the Ministry of Tourism in Lebanon, for insights into the impact of the war on the tourism sector, particularly the hospitality industry.
“Since tourism is linked to security, if this factor is threatened, it will greatly impact the tourism sector, just as it is happening now in Lebanon.”
Although the war has affected all segments of the travel industry, with airlines dramatically reducing service and travelers becoming increasingly wary about visiting the country, Amar finds it challenging to predict a clear scenario until the holidays arrive. Events may change for the better, meaning some visitors may reverse their plans during the high season in the holidays, divided into the Christmas and New Year periods.
“We are looking forward to the Lebanese diaspora and international visitors enjoying the festive season with their families, potentially having a positive impact on the sector, as happened in the summer when tourism in the country was booming with fully booked places.”
Beirut’s Lebanon Tours and Travels’ general manager has stated that UNESCO Heritage site, the Baalbek Temples, and the Jeitta Grotto, both typically bustling with daily visitors, are currently empty. Hussein Abdallah confirmed this, citing the impact of decreased tourism on these prominent landmarks.
Strategically situated near the center of the conflict, Lebanon heavily relies on tourism revenue as a significant source of foreign currency income. However, there are concerns that fear and uncertainty towards visiting the nation will persist for an extended period even after the conflict has ceased.
“Visiting Lebanon had been the plan for us this Christmas, particularly for my partner, who had placed it at the top of our bucket list. Our initial willingness to explore this beautiful country was reinforced by the favorable accounts shared by our dear friends, who had already experienced it during the summertime. However, when it came to our safety, growing concerns lingered,” said Arthur Stevenson, a British retired teacher, expressing regret over giving up their travel plans.
Stevenson and his wife followed the safety directives of the British Embassy, but they are not alone. Similar stories are emerging from individuals in several Western countries, all canceling travel plans for security reasons.
Lebanon has been reeling from a financial crisis for the past four years, and experts warn that the longer the war persists, the emptier Lebanon will become. The conflict between Hezbollah and Israel in southern Lebanon has caused the restaurant industry to suffer greatly, with business declining by as much as 80%, reports the Lebanese syndicate representing restaurants, nightclubs, and cafes. This decline has been evident since October 7th when the continuous exchange of fire between the two forces started.
The flow of travelers passing through Rafic Hariri International Airport in Beirut has been relatively low despite past overcrowding and extended waits for customs checks in recent months.
“The airport was pretty empty. Last December, I came, and the crowd was very big. There is definitely a noticeable difference now as I only queued for a couple of minutes at immigration, and my luggage arrived very fast,” said a Lebanese expat arriving from Dubai for a family wedding.
What poses a far greater concern is not just the current clashes but rather the prolonged condition projected to last several months, exerting a long-term impact on the economy and tourism-dependent corporations.
Pierre Achkar, President at Lebanese Hotel Federation for Tourism Industries, said in a statement that Lebanon’s return to the Western tourism map will take a long time, considering that “if the events in Gaza cease, Lebanon’s tourist sector will not witness any significant recovery before the spring of 2024.”
The President of the Association of Travel Agency Owners, Jean Abboud, said, “Unfortunately, a significant number of tourist groups and Lebanese expatriates canceled their trips to Lebanon for the Christmas holidays.”
Marita Abboud, owner of the Jbeil gateway guesthouse, shared her disheartenment toward the flood of cancellations. She mentioned how not only foreign travelers but also Lebanese residents are canceling their weekend plans.
“People’s spending habits in Lebanon have changed, so we mainly rely on foreigners and Lebanese expats to keep our businesses running, as we did in summer,” said Abboud.
Businesses in Lebanon were already struggling to stay afloat and navigate the challenges of increased expenses, such as dollarized electricity costs and staffing difficulties, with the impact of fluctuating currency exchange and pricing.
The decline in international visitors, coupled with the persisting uncertainties surrounding safety and security, paints a challenging outlook for the country’s recovery. The impact on businesses, from UNESCO Heritage sites to local establishments, underscores the deep and lasting effects of the conflict on Lebanon’s economy, raising concerns about the prolonged duration required for a meaningful revival of the tourism industry.