The road was empty. Dried leaves danced on vacant sidewalks, their rustling clearly audible as they rolled on the ground. Gazing upon the scene from inside my car was melancholic, as silence enveloped the beautiful street; a silence not ruined, and a stupor not broken, except by the roar or headlights of cars coming from the opposite end. Store signs were dark, or were they missing? Their fronts shuttered by rollers caked with heavy dust.
Such was the vision that welcomed visitors to the main street in the renowned town of Bhamdoun el-Mhatta, 23 kilometers from Beirut, that is if one were to park his car and exit to stroll about. But, what harkens? A different sound could now be heard, an unusual commotion that defied description — a bustling noise! I hastily drew closer to its source, and discovered an open ice cream and confectionary parlor, brightly lit up and bursting with customers. What was its secret for success on such a lonely street? “Its ice cream is tasty, and its name well-known. Beirutis flock to it to escape the stifling heat; it is one of the few stores that opened its shutters this year. No wonder that it is so crowded!”
We continued on toward another confectionary that beckoned customers to come in, in the hope of a fruitful season, only to find disappointment. Except for ashtrays, its tables lay empty. Six years ago, the same street was closed to vehicular traffic, and the few cars that ventured in swam all night in a sea of people. If a safe parking spot proved available, lucky drivers parked their cars hundreds of meters away, and advanced on foot, squinting at the blinding light emanating from restaurants, cafes and storefronts, amid the throngs of Gulf country tourists, who, for decades, held a special affection for the main street of Bhamdoun el-Mhatta. What is it that changed then?
1,200 mostly vacant apartments, and 5,000 wasted employment opportunities
“Perhaps the fate of the Gulf tourists’ most popular destination was to pay the price of the Syrian war,” Bhamdoun el-Mhatta Mayor Esta Abou Rjeily told An-Nahar. He said that in the past when the Damascus Road was open for traffic between the Gulf countries and Syria and no travel warnings urged Gulf citizens to stay clear of Lebanon, be it by land or air, the situation in Bhamdoun el-Mhatta was much different.
Abou Rjeily added: “Overland travel between Lebanon and the Gulf countries is completely halted, which negatively affected tourism in mountain summer resorts. Despite the fact that security in Lebanon is good, political instability is the key missing ingredient, which, if it were present, would give impetus to the advent of Gulf tourists to Lebanon.”
Abou Rjeily lamented that in the past, planes coming from Saudi Arabia and Kuwait to Lebanon were estimated to number 30 a day, with Bhamdoun el-Mhatta taking on the role of meeting place or rallying point for Gulf tourists, who flocked there in the thousands per day from 40 or so adjoining villages in Mount Lebanon’s Chouf, Aley and el-Metn regions, for the purpose of shopping and meeting up with friends. In Bhamdoun el-Mhatta, the number of furnished apartments set aside for Gulf tourists is estimated to total 1,200, though only 30% are currently rented. Also, the town’s stores and shops seasonally rented to merchants are, by and large, vacant and empty, due to the lack of prospects for a promising season that may urge them to invest in the region.
Abou Rjeily added: “The market crisis faced by Bhamdoun el-Mhatta is part of the larger crisis that afflicted and weakened the Lebanese marketplace. Why would merchants invest in Bhamdoun when they are suffering from miserable conditions in Beirut, due to the absence of Gulf tourists and Lebanese expatriates alike?” The larger issue engendered by the dearth of Gulf tourists in mountain summer destinations is the loss of approximately 5,000 direct and indirect jobs, which, in turn, will negatively affect the future of young people in the region and add to their difficult economic conditions, especially considering that they had grown dependent upon the summer season to secure their livelihoods when winter came.”
35% August occupancy rate
Most five-star hotels in Bhamdoun el-Mhatta maintain a glimmer of hope that urges them to endure until the return of the town’s glory days. According to Abou Rjeily, their occupancy rate depended on future developments. In August, the rate ranged between 35% and 40%, much lower than the 100% occupancy rate recorded in 2010, with the majority of current reservations made by Saudis, Qataris and Kuwaitis. “Gulf country citizens are hungry for the return of political stability to Lebanon, as they feel forcibly deprived of the opportunity to come back to Lebanon’s summer destinations, for which they have no alternatives.” He added that he expected a rise in reservations this month due to the deteriorating political and security situation in Turkey, which led many Arab citizens to change their travel plans from Turkey to Lebanon.
From 890,000 to 200,000 Gulf tourists
Shedding light on the state of the tourism sector in Lebanon affected by the paucity of Gulf visitors, economist Jassem Ajaqa told An-Nahar that the number of Gulf tourists entering Lebanon reached 890,000 in 2010, while this number did not exceed 200,000 in 2015. Still, it is expected to increase by 50,000 to 60,000 this year due to the Turkish crisis. The number of tourists who came to Lebanon totaled 2,167,989 in 2010, with the number decreasing to 1,517,927 in 2015 when Gulf citizens remained away.
Ajaqa further said that, in his opinion, the importance of Gulf tourists lay in their level of spending, which is the highest in Lebanon. The expatriate Lebanese population visiting the country is extremely large, but its spending is low compared with Gulf tourists. From this standpoint, Ajaqa compared Lebanon’s loss of Gulf tourists to the unfortunate loss of a beloved Rolls Royce; for said forfeiture deprived Lebanon of liquidity, while the repercussions on the tourism sector were negative, concurrently due to the low profit margin and reduced number of tourists.
Ajaqa confined the spending of Lebanese expatriates to four main sectors during their seasonal visits to Lebanon: rental cars, restaurants, mountain chalet leases and seaside resorts. But the absence of Gulf tourists led to a drop in the profitability of the sector; for, a car costing $50 per day to rent in 2010 now only costs $35, despite it being a 2016 model. He summarized the state of Lebanon’s tourism sector in 2016 with one sentence: “The whole of the sector is enduring, despite the drop in profitability compared with the period when Gulf tourists flocked to the country.”
To what extent will the Turkish crisis bring Gulf tourists back to Lebanon this summer?
“Some of those cancelling their stays in Turkey will go to European Balkan countries endowed with the same natural beauty as Turkey. With regard to Arab citizens, some of them will come to Lebanon following the positive remarks made by Saudi ambassador Ali Awad Asiri," Ajaqa said. "But I do not think that their percentage will be great because the political situation will remain unchanged, particularly after the media escalation underway between Hezbollah and Saudi Arabia. Moreover, the issue of food safety may impede the advent of tourists, despite it being positively gauged.”
This season, visitors to Bhamdoun el-Mhatta have but that sole open ice cream parlor, in addition to a few shops that for years have adorned its main avenue and remained operational during the town’s harsh winter season. The rest are but dark and forgotten shells looking for a glimmer of hope to brighten their future seasons.