Mired in crises, Lebanon hopes summer arrivals bring relief

Jul 4, 2021, 11:06 PM | Updated: Jul 5, 2021, 12:51 am
Tourists check out the Batroun Phoenician wall in Batroun village, north of Beirut, Lebanon, Friday...

Tourists check out the Batroun Phoenician wall in Batroun village, north of Beirut, Lebanon, Friday, July 2, 2021. With their dollars trapped in the bank, a lack of functioning credit cards and travel restrictions imposed because of the pandemic, many Lebanese who traditionally vacationed over the summer at regional hotspots are also now turning toward domestic tourism. (AP Photo/Hassan Ammar)

(AP Photo/Hassan Ammar)

NIHA, Lebanon (AP) — In a village in Lebanon’s scenic Chouf Mountains, 69-year-old Chafik Mershad pulls out a massive rectangular guestbook and reads out despairingly the date when he hosted his last visitor: Nov. 16, 2019.

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

“Corona really affected us, but the biggest thing was the currency crisis,” Mershad said, speaking at his home above the guesthouse. “We used to offer meals for guests with Nescafe, tea, whatever they wanted for a cheap price. Now, one hamburger patty costs that much.”

The dual shocks of the pandemic and a devastating financial crisis have gutted the hospitality sector of this Mediterranean nation, known for its beaches, mountain resorts and good food. Hundreds of businesses, including guesthouses like the Mershad Guesthouse, have been forced to close.

But as pandemic restrictions are being eased, the businesses that survived hope the dollars spent by visiting Lebanese expats and an increase in domestic tourism can get the wheels of the economy moving again.

Currently, most hotel reservations are from Lebanese expats and some foreigners from neighboring Iraq, Egypt and Jordan. Airport arrivals are picking up: Every day for the past several weeks, the Beirut Airport has had four flights coming from Iraq, with more than 700 passengers in total, according to Jean Abboud, president of the Travel and Tourist Agents Union. Chaotic scenes have been reported at the arrivals lounge as people crowd for the obligatory PCR test.

Many Lebanese who traditionally vacationed abroad over the summer are now turning to domestic tourism. It’s the more practical option because of travel restrictions, dollars trapped in banks and a lack of functioning credit cards.

“In the past two years, the country has radically changed. It is no longer a destination for nightlife, for city tourism and for the things that people knew. There’s … more interest from the Lebanese to travel inside their country,” said Joumana Brihi, board member of the Lebanese Mountain Trail Association. The association maintains a 290-mile (470-kilometer) hiking trail spanning the country from north to south.

Many in the industry say the number of domestic tourists has increased significantly since the country’s lockdown eased in April. They expect to see expats piling in and spending this summer despite the instability, partly because of the devalued Lebanese pound.

That will save a lot of places from shutting down or “at least prolong the life of some businesses,” said Maya Noun, general secretary of the syndicate of restaurant owners.

Since October 2019, Lebanon’s currency has lost more than 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, Member of Parliament Michel Daher was chastised on social media for saying on TV that “Lebanon is really cheap, in every sense,” because of the crumbling currency.

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

Still, the scene on the ground is no picturesque vacation destination. Electricity cuts last much of the day and privately run generators have had to be turned off for several hours to ration fuel. The country suffers from a shortage of vital products, including medicine, medical products and gasoline.

For weeks, frustrated citizens have been lining up to fill up at gas stations, with occasional fistfights and shootings amid frayed nerves. More than half the population has been plunged into poverty, and with sectarian tensions on the rise, Lebanon feels ready to erupt.

Lebanon’s currency crash has created a jarring schism between the comfortable minority whose income is in so-called fresh dollars that can be withdrawn from banks, and those being pushed farther into poverty, including former members of a vanishing middle class whose purchasing power has disappeared.

Resorts in the coastal cities of Batroun and Byblos are regularly packed and forecast to do well this summer after being closed last year because of the pandemic. Restaurants, pubs and rooftop bars are buzzing again and some mountain guesthouses and boutique hotels are fully booked.

Yet the idea that expats will help the economy is partially misleading, said Mike Azar, a Beirut-based financial adviser. “Foreign dollars coming from tourists is always going to be a positive thing, but does it make the lira (pound) appreciate or depreciate at a slower pace? It is not really something you can say.”

Many expats seem to be wavering on whether to visit Lebanon. Some yearn to reconnect with family after long separations caused by the pandemic. Others are not willing to risk it.

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

“I will not spend more than $300 or $400 this whole month even if I was going every night to a bar, or club or restaurant,” he said, adding he would be using the family house and car while in Lebanon.

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

Not this time.

“Do I want to go there and not be able to put gas in my car and travel 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 needed to treat them? Do I want my sons to wonder at night why there is no electricity?” she asked.

Copyright © The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.


FILE - A sign for a Starbucks Coffee shop is pictured in Harvard Square in Cambridge, Mass., Dec. 1...
Associated Press

Starbucks asks labor board to halt union votes temporarily

Starbucks is asking the National Labor Relations Board to temporarily suspend all union elections at its U.S. stores in response to allegations of improper coordination between regional NLRB officials and the union. In a letter sent Monday to the NLRB, Starbucks said an unnamed government official told the company about numerous issues in the NLRB’s […]
6 hours ago
FILE - A vial of Moderna COVID-19 vaccine rests on a table at an inoculation station next to Jackso...
Associated Press

British regulator 1st to OK Moderna’s updated COVID booster

LONDON (AP) — British drug regulators have become the first in the world to authorize an updated version of Moderna’s coronavirus vaccine that aims to protect against the original virus and the omicron variant. In a statement on Monday, the Medicines and Healthcare Regulatory Agency said it had given the green light to Moderna’s combination […]
6 hours ago
FILE - This undated file photo provided by NerdWallet shows Liz Weston, a columnist for personal fi...
Associated Press

Liz Weston: Just Starting Out? Learn From Our Mistakes

Those of us who write and talk about money for a living tend to have our financial acts together. But that wasn’t always the case. I invited some personal finance experts to share what they wish they could have told their younger selves about money. INVEST EARLY, EVEN IF IT’S SCARY If the stock market […]
6 hours ago
Associated Press

New climate deal spurs hopes of more carbon storage projects

GILLETTE, Wyo. (AP) — The rolling prairie lands of northeastern Wyoming have been a paradise of lush, knee-deep grass for sheep, cattle and pronghorn antelope this summer. But it’s a different green — greener energy — that geologist Fred McLaughlin seeks as he drills nearly two miles (3.2 kilometers) into the ground, far deeper than […]
6 hours ago
Associated Press

US: Drone attack targets US base in Syria, no casualties

BEIRUT (AP) — An attack with drones hit a compound run by American troops and U.S.-backed Syrian opposition fighters in eastern Syria on Monday, the U.S. military said, adding that there were no casualties or damage. The military said the attack took place in the vicinity of al-Tanf base near where the borders of Syria, […]
6 hours ago
FILE - US Basketball player Brittney Griner looks through bars as she listens to the verdict standi...
Associated Press

Lawyers appeal Griner’s Russian prison sentence

MOSCOW (AP) — Lawyers for American basketball star Brittney Griner on Monday filed an appeal against her nine-year Russian prison sentence for drug possession, Russian news agencies reported Monday. Griner, a center for the Phoenix Mercury and a two-time Olympic gold medalist, was convicted on Aug. 4. She was arrested in February at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo […]
6 hours ago

Sponsored Articles

Day & Night Air Conditioning, Heating and Plumbing

Ways to prevent clogged drains and what to do if you’re too late

While there are a variety of ways to prevent clogged drains, it's equally as important to know what to do when you're already too late.
(Courtesy Condor)...
Condor Airlines

Condor Airlines shows passion for destinations from Sky Harbor with new-look aircraft

Condor Airlines brings passion to each flight and connects people to their dream destinations throughout the world.
Carla Berg, MHS, Deputy Director, Public Health Services, Arizona Department of Health Services

Vaccines are safe if you are pregnant or breastfeeding

Are you pregnant? Do you have a friend or loved one who’s expecting?
Mired in crises, Lebanon hopes summer arrivals bring relief