BEIRUT: Lebanon is hoping a summer influx of tourists and visitors will help revive its flagging economy, with the return of live performances at the Baalbeck International Festival set to be a major boost.
The festival, a global cultural moment for more than six decades, was held virtually in 2020 and 2021 due to pandemic restrictions, but previews of its lineup from Baalbeck Castle between July 8 and July 17 attracted more of 17 million views on social networks.
Tourism Minister Walid Nassar said up to 12,000 people are expected to arrive in Beirut every day for the next three months, with more than a million arrivals over the summer.
“Given its geographical location and all its tourist components, Lebanon does not need marketing,” he said.
Speaking during an inspection tour of Rafic Hariri International Airport in Beirut, Nassar said flights, hotels and even guesthouses were fully booked for the summer.
Travel agencies and airlines say many Lebanese expats planning to spend their summer holidays in Lebanon with their families have booked tickets.
“We have a 100% booking rate between July 1 and mid-September,” Jean Abboud, head of the Syndicate of Tourism and Travel Agencies, told Arab News.
“A total of 110 planes will land in Beirut during this period, carrying 15,000 passengers, the vast majority of whom are Lebanese, in addition to Jordanians, Iraqis and Egyptians.”
He said the number of flights to and from Lebanon may need to be increased to meet growing demand.
According to Abboud, expatriates on vacation will help revive the Lebanese economy by injecting US dollars into the economy.
However, rising tourist numbers are putting pressure on accommodation in the capital, with some five-star Beirut beachfront hotels destroyed in the 2020 Beirut port explosion yet to be rebuilt.
“The remaining options are four-star hotels in the capital, and there are a few five-star hotels outside the capital, in addition to guesthouses which have recently proliferated in various regions. A total of 17,000 hotel rooms have been set up to accommodate Lebanese in their homeland,” Abboud said.
He pointed to a decline in Gulf tourism in Lebanon, saying: “For decades, Gulf tourists used to spend long weeks in Lebanon. In 2011, their contribution to our economy was $11 billion, while today it is just over $4 billion.
In Baalbeck, the city’s main festivals are regaining their appeal after organizers failed to attract foreign artists in recent years amid economic collapse and the depreciation of the local currency.
Acting Interior Minister Bassam Mawlawi said “the security situation in Lebanon is stable and under control”.
Four concerts are scheduled at Baalbek Castle from July 8 to 17, featuring Lebanese, Spanish and French artists. The festival opens with a performance of traditional songs by Somaya Baalbaki, which will be supported by an orchestra of more than 35 musicians led by Lebnan Baalbaki.
Nayla de Freij, head of Baalbeck’s festival committee, told Arab News that Lebanese festivals are struggling in the face of difficult economic conditions, but are determined to “emphasize cultural exchanges between the East and the West”.
With no public funding for the Baalbeck festival this year, organizers were relying on contributions from a limited number of sponsors, she said.
However, de Freij said that “the austerity measures and the limited budget do not mean that we are going to cut corners on the technical level that we want to maintain at the Baalbeck festivals. That’s why we’ll only give four concerts this year, and we won’t build the huge amphitheater.
Festival artists “have accepted relatively modest payments because they also want to help Lebanon,” she added.
“Our role in these circumstances is to encourage dying Lebanese art. There are creators who must pursue their artistic career. And we wanted to present art that looks like people and preserves their heritage.
Abboud and de Freij said security is key to reviving summer activities in Lebanon.
“The committee has contacted army and security officials, and they have confirmed that security will be under control to and from Baalbeck,” de Freij said.