BEIRUT: Excessively negative media reports about Lebanon are ruining the country’s image, according to caretaker Tourism Minister Avedis Guidanian, who said he has tried his best during his tenure to show Lebanon in a positive light.
“We love to say in the media that Lebanon is covered in trash, that the sea is polluted and that it’s the most expensive tourist destination in the world – well, you’ve ruined Lebanon’s image,” Guidanian said, speaking in a recent interview with The Daily Star.
“I mean look at Egypt – is there a place dirtier than it? People are louder than us, there is more traffic than here – people live in graves, OK? But there is tourism, because they know how to sell that country,” he said.
Guidanian conceded that there was pollution in certain areas of Lebanon’s sea, and that trash was a problem, but said the extent was wildly exaggerated.
“We have a lot of freedom of the press, which is very important, but it is being used wrongly. I always give the same metaphor: I have a daughter. If I say she doesn’t come home, she smokes hashish, she goes out with many men ... will anyone proper come and ask for her hand?” he said. “This bad image of Lebanon abroad is bad because of the media.”
He said he had done “the opposite work,” bringing outsiders “who were scared before they came here, because they thought there was no asphalt, people still ride camels and the country is a mound of trash – but when they came, they saw otherwise.”
“To work in tourism is a business. You have a product called Lebanon, you have to promote it and sell it, and I’m the salesman.”
HOSPITALITY HOT SPOT BUT REFORMS REQUIRED
While he touted his record promoting Lebanon’s image abroad, Guidanian said the country needed serious administrative reform to make its touristic potential a reality.
“Lebanon’s brand is [being] the most successful hospitality destination [in the world] because ... Lebanese know how to treat their guests,” he said.
“What annoys me is that we could have better results if there was a push to facilitate this by some public administrations, most importantly the Finance Ministry and the Court of Audit,” he said.
According to Guidanian, the Court of Audit took months to audit requests for cash to be dished out to tourism operators, by which time the season was over.
This, for example, hampered his plan to increase tourism by providing large operators a payment of $50 for each person they brought to Lebanon by chartered flight.
These people would go on to spend a minimum of $500 just at hotels and restaurants, he said, guaranteeing a tenfold return on investment. “All the countries who were successful in the region gave these commissions,” he said, pointing to Cyprus, where he said this system had helped push tourism to make up 25 percent of its GDP.
Tourism currently constitutes 8-10 percent of Lebanon’s GDP, he said, while the target is 20 percent.
But Guidanian also said tourism was on the rise: “They say the best year for tourism in Lebanon was 2010, with 2.168 million tourists – this year it’s 2 million, which is not far off.”
The Tourism Ministry reported that by the end of September, the number of tourist arrivals had settled at 1.51 million.
To keep on this positive trajectory, Guidanian said Lebanon would have to move away from an unstable reliance on wealthy tourists from the Gulf to new markets: China, Russia, India and Europe.
But this will require more effort.
He said that Cyprus had been successful in bringing in 800,000 Russian tourists last year – made possible because the Cypriot tourism minister had a $50 million budget compared to Guidanian’s $5 million. He said he suggested a $10 million budget for the next Cabinet.
“Europeans are coming in summer and in winter how? Because we held two conferences over the past two years with over 150 tour operators representing 40 countries ... putting us on the map with the big players. This costs money,” he said.
COMMITMENT TO THE PRODUCT
A member of the Armenian Tashnag Party, and of Armenian heritage himself, Guidanian previously sparked controversy when he said he preferred Armenia over Lebanon.
Asked if he still maintained that position, he said, in an apparent reference to the Armenian genocide: “This is something tied to our ancestry. If you are in a house and someone comes and kills your father and mother, rapes your sister and throws you out, would you be able to forget it?”
“That’s what I’m talking about, but it’s been misunderstood,” he said, adding that he put “Lebanon’s interests over Armenian interests,” both as a government official and as a Lebanese citizen.
THE SYRIA QUESTION
In a move that seemed out of the scope of his job as tourism minister, Guidanian traveled to Syria in September, along with three other Damascus-aligned Lebanese ministers, to attend the Damascus International Fair.
The move came at a time of heightened local debate over the nature of Lebanon’s Syria relations, which have been effectively on hold since the outbreak of the Syrian revolution and subsequent civil war.
Guidanian said he was simply responding to an invitation from his Syrian counterpart, not attempting to pressure Prime Minister-designate Saad Hariri to normalize ties.
Hariri staunchly opposes normalizing ties with Bashar Assad’s government before a political solution to the 7-year-old war is found.
Guidanian said that during the trip, he met with members of the Armenian community in Syria, but that he did not and would not sign any kind of agreement unless a Cabinet decision had been taken on the matter. He added that he attended because the reopening of the Nassib border crossing – still closed at the time of his trip – between Syria and Jordan presented a lucrative opportunity for Jordanian tourists to come to Lebanon.
He said that 300,000 Jordanian tourists used to drive to Lebanon for short stays before the crossing was closed following its capture in 2015 by rebels on the Syrian side.
The number of Jordanian tourists arriving in Lebanon had subsequently dropped to between 70,000 and 80,000 and “those remaining 220,000 would make a million percent difference,” he said.
So, he had gone to learn Syria’s position on the issue, and he said that “it’s clear there is no problem.”
“Yes, I could have spoken on the phone, I could have also just read the news, but I thought it would be a good initiative on my part to be present at the fair to get firsthand info. Then, if there are issues in the future, I can be one of the people who deals with them.”
LOOKING TO THE FUTURE
Guidanian said his one regret from his term as minister was working on international tourism at the expense of domestic tourism.
“I didn’t work on promoting tourism in the small towns and villages where it can be shored up,” he said. “I thought I had a chance to promote Lebanon outside, because this stability we are experiencing may not last long.”
But he may get another chance to redress his regret. Guidanian said he had been promised by top-level officials that he would retain his post at the ministry in the next government, owing to his record.
Making this even more likely, he said, was the fact that “political battles are waged over important ministries, and they don’t consider this one important. ... I think it is one of the most important, because ... it can create very quick economic return.”
“If I’m back, my project is to find new markets, invest in tourism and make Lebanon’s image nicer outside. If I can do those things, we will get direct investment in the coming years,” he said.