Lebanon News

What’s Lebanon’s draw for Western tourists?

People sit in a pub in Mar Mikhael. (The Daily Star/Grace Kassab)

BEIRUT: As summer comes to an end, the mass of tourists filling the bars and streets of Mar Mikhael slowly pack their bags and return home. Although the exact number tourists for July and August have yet to be calculated, Joumana Kebrit, director of the Research Department at the Tourism Ministry, estimated that some 664,000 tourists visited the country this summer. If accurate, the number would indicate a rebound from the dismal 2011-2013 period following the start of the Syria crisis that saw tourism to Lebanon plummet.

Her research concluded that Europe, other Arab countries and the United States rank as the top three sources of tourists for the country, but didn’t necessarily differentiate the large number of Lebanese expatriates or diaspora who return home on a foreign passport. There has also been a significant drop in the number of tourists from the Gulf in recent years as local travel restrictions discouraged many from visiting Lebanon.

Beirut’s popularity is not a new phenomenon. Lebanon has long held the image for Western visitors of Frank Sinatra and Marlon Brando lounging in Jbeil in the heady prewar days. Nonetheless, their numbers have been significantly increasing in in recent years.

In July, top fashion magazine Vogue ran the story “4 Perfect Days in Beirut.”

The article’s author Alison Beckner told The Daily Star that she’s seen a lot of interest in Beirut when traveling in Europe. “In Both Paris and Athens – the two cities I spend a good deal of my time lately – there is a strong interest in Beirut as a city and an appreciation for Lebanese culture. I think this goes for most of Europe, actually.”

Multiple factors can be attributed to this growth in Western tourists to Lebanon. “After the onset of the Syrian war, I noticed a lot of journalists and NGO workers were coming. Lebanon is a gateway to pursue things in their careers,” said a Mar Mikhael-based host on Airbnb – the popular online marketplace for renting holiday homes – who identified himself only as Rami.

“The majority of my guests are interested in the Middle East or have a Lebanese friend from the diaspora. It’s rare that a foreigner comes without any prior knowledge of the country,” he added.

Airbnb has proved popular with Lebanese-based hosts and visitors, with more than 300 flats and rooms across Beirut alone – the majority of which are in Ashrafieh.

Firas Safa, a 25-year-old Lebanese national working as an art director at an advertising agency in Lebanon, isn’t surprised.

“All the art galleries, all the exhibitions, events, parties and cool cafes are in Gemmayzeh and Mar Mikhael. It’s happening here. Hamra ... is a different scene; it can be more conservative. I understand why foreigners feel more comfortable [in Ashrafieh],” she told The Daily Star.

Beckner’s article mirrors Safa’s sentiment, showcasing stores, restaurants, bookstores and museums that are almost exclusively in Ashrafieh.

Another major draw for Westerners coming to Beirut has been education. Not only are the likes of the American University of Beirut leading international institutions, but the once-popular schools of Arabic language in Damascus are long gone.

Many wanting to learn Arabic are opting instead for Beirut due to the cultural scene over Jordan or Egypt – two other popular destinations.

Another Airbnb host in Geitawi who identified himself only as Ziad said he sees a difference between foreigners who come here short term and expatriates.

“The experience is completely different than those who come, party and leave. Beirut is the perfect mix of Oriental and Western customs. Westerners can travel and go out comfortably while experiencing something “exotic,” he explained.

However, he believes this view of the country changes over time.

“I have foreign friends here that begin to understand why the Lebanese have such a tumultuous relationship with the country. This is after they stay here for more than a few months.

“Beirut is a beautiful and exotic city to spend time in when you’re not here long enough to fully breathe in the corruption and pollution,” he added.

Isadora Gotts, a 23-year-old French-American, reflected on how her perception of the country has changed. “When I first got here, all of the things that were typically Lebanese were exotic and exciting to me. It was all awesome. Slowly, I realized how some of these things become inconveniences in my daily life, she said.

When asked if she regretted staying here long term, Gotts quickly replied, “Not at all. It’s been such an experience. I love it, but ask me again in another four months.”

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on September 05, 2016, on page 3.

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