Stuck in crises, Lebanon hopes summer arrivals will bring relief


NIHA, Lebanon (AP) – In a village in the picturesque Chouf mountains of Lebanon, Chafik Mershad, 69, pulls out a huge rectangular guestbook and desperately reads the date he greeted his last visitor: November 16 2019.

A month earlier, anti-government protests had exploded across the country over taxes and a deepening currency crisis. Amid such uncertainty, few people have visited his guesthouse. Then came the coronavirus and the government-imposed closures that followed. The guesthouse officially closed in February 2020. A year and a half later, it still has no plans to reopen amid the country’s current financial crisis.

“The coronavirus has really hit us, but the biggest one has been the currency crisis,” Mershad said, speaking at his home above the guesthouse. “Before, we offered meals to guests with Nescafe, tea, whatever they wanted at a cheap price. Now a burger patty costs that much. “

The double shock of the pandemic and a devastating financial crisis have emptied the hotel sector in this Mediterranean nation, known for its beaches, hill stations and good cuisine. Hundreds of businesses, including guest houses like Mershad Guesthouse, have been forced to close.

But as restrictions linked to the pandemic are relaxed, the companies that have survived hope that the dollars spent visiting Lebanese expatriates and an increase in domestic tourism can kick-start the economy.

Currently, most hotel reservations come from Lebanese expats and some foreigners from neighboring Iraq, Egypt and Jordan. Arrivals at the airport are multiplying: every day for several weeks, Beirut airport has welcomed four flights from Iraq, with more than 700 passengers in total, according to Jean Abboud, president of the Union of Travel Agents and tourism. Chaotic scenes have been reported in the arrivals hall as people crowd for the mandatory PCR test.

Many Lebanese who traditionally spent their holidays abroad during the summer are now turning to domestic tourism. This is the most convenient option due to travel restrictions, dollars trapped in banks, and the lack of working credit cards.

“Over the past two years, the country has changed dramatically. It’s no longer a destination for nightlife, for city tourism, and for things that people used to know. The Lebanese are more interested in traveling within their country, ”said Joumana Brihi, member of the board of directors of the Lebanese Association of Mountain Trails. The association maintains a 290 mile (470 kilometer) hiking trail that crosses the country from north to south.

Many in the industry say the number of domestic tourists has increased significantly since the country’s lockdown was eased in April. They expect expats to pile up and spend this summer despite the instability, in part due to the devaluation of the Lebanese pound.

This will prevent many places from closing or “at least prolong the life of some businesses,” said Maya Noun, general secretary of the restaurant owners’ union.

Since October 2019, the Lebanese currency has lost over 90% of its value, trading at around 17,000 Lebanese pounds to the dollar on the black market. The official exchange rate remains at 1,507 pounds to the dollar.

Last year MP Michel Daher was reprimanded on social media for saying on television that “Lebanon is really cheap in every sense of the word” because of the collapsing currency.

“People were laughing at me then,” Daher told The Associated Press. “Now there are a lot of Lebanese expats who come because of the prices, but we also want foreigners. “

Still, the field scene is not a quaint vacation destination. Power cuts last much of the day, and private generators have had to be turned off for several hours to ration fuel. The country suffers from a shortage of vital commodities, including drugs, medical supplies and gasoline.

For weeks frustrated citizens lined up to refuel at gas stations, with occasional brawls and shootouts amidst heated nerves. More than half of the population is plunged into poverty and with the rise of sectarian tensions, Lebanon feels ready to erupt.

Lebanon’s currency crash has created a discordant schism between the comfortable minority whose incomes are so-called fresh dollars that can be withdrawn from banks, and those who are pushed further into poverty, including former members of a disappearing middle class whose purchasing power has disappeared.

The resorts in the coastal towns of Batroun and Byblos are regularly crowded and are expected to do well this summer after being closed last year due to the pandemic. Rooftop restaurants, pubs and bars are reborn, and some mountain guesthouses and boutique hotels are fully booked.

Still, the idea that expatriates will help the economy is partly misleading, said Mike Azar, a Beirut-based financial adviser. “Foreign dollars from tourists will always be a positive thing, but does that cause the lira (pound sterling) to appreciate or depreciate at a slower rate? It’s not really something you can say.

Many expats seem reluctant to travel to Lebanon. Some aspire to reconnect with family after long separations caused by the pandemic. Others are not prepared to take the risk.

Joe Rizk, a 20-year-old mechanical engineering student at UMass Lowell in the US coastal village of Damour, said his family persuaded him to return for August. He said he would bring drugs that are in short supply, like Advil, for family and friends.

“I won’t spend more than $ 300 or $ 400 for the whole month, even if I went to a bar, club or restaurant every night,” he said, adding that he would use the family home. and the car during his stay in Lebanon.

But Hala al-Hachem, a 37-year-old deputy bank manager in Massachusetts, said she was too worried to travel to Lebanon with two children, aged 8 and 6. Originally from southern Lebanon, she used to come back with her family every summer.

Not this time.

“Do I want to go there and not be able to put gasoline in my car and move around?” Do I want to go there and risk one of them getting sick and going to a hospital where they don’t have the medicine to treat them? Do I want my sons to wonder at night why there is no electricity? ” she asked.

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