Lebanon is calling this summer tourist season the most successful ever. Visitors flocked to the Lazy B uspcale beach club owned by Georges Boustany. But the influx has so strained the nation’s war-weakened infrastructure that in late August, Lazy B was getting only about 12 hours of electricity a day, and even then the voltage was so low that Boustany was forced to augment it with a diesel-fueled generator. The club was also relying on a private well because tap water was unreliable. “The only thing working is the telephone,” Boustany said wryly.
Three summers after warfare between Israel and the Islamic militant group Hezbollah left portions of Beirut in ruins and tourists scrambling for the border, the capital’s beach clubs, malls, and restaurants were once again packed. The crowds included many returning Lebanese expatriates; tourists from the conservative Persian Gulf region drawn to Beirut’s libertine atmosphere, sizzling night life, and mild weather; and European and American adventure-seekers.
But the infrastructure problems caused by the nation’s decades-old cycles of violence and peace, as well as its political deadlock, were evident. A crippled, divided state, which has struggled to provide even basic services to its 4 million citizens since a brutal 15-year civil war ended in 1990, suddenly had to accommodate an estimated 2 million visitors by the end of this year, up more than half a million from the previous record of 1.4 million in 1974.
The result has been longer power outages, greater water shortages, and traffic gridlock that detracts from the nation’s carefree image and slows other sectors of the economy, even as the season was winding down for the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.
“I see a lot of rentals on the road, and the traffic has basically doubled, especially leaving Beirut,” said Boulos Douaihy, 30, an architect whose daily commute to the capital now takes twice as long. “I don’t really like the atmosphere, but it’s good for the country.”
The civil war and the polarized, badly coordinated governments of the ensuing years left gaping holes in Lebanon’s infrastructure that were never completely repaired, giving rise over the years to an ad-hoc network of illegal Internet providers, private electrical-generator mafias, freshwater tankers, and valet parking.
“In Lebanon there is always an alternative,” said Paul Ariss, head of the Lebanese Syndicate of Restaurant and Cafe Owners.
But the extra costs can be a burden on business owners and drive up prices for customers. Even though this summer proved a profitable one for the food service industry, Ariss said, the current situation is unsustainable. “We have to deal with it until the new government is formed, and they start planning for something better,” he said.
Enthusiasm is waning for the impending government of Sunni Muslim billionaire Saad Hariri, whose US- and Saudi-backed coalition of parties reaffirmed its majority in June elections but has since suffered a number of setbacks. The delay in the Cabinet’s formation inspired snide jokes that Lebanon’s bombastic politicians were too busy raking in tourism profits to form a government or even fight each other.
Boustany, the beach club owner, was just grateful that electricity and water were his biggest worries this summer. Lazy B opened just five days before the 2006 war badly damaged much of Lebanon’s already weak infrastructure, including a power plant, which spilled tons of petroleum into the Mediterranean Sea.
The war was followed by two years of infighting between Hariri’s so-called March 14 coalition and the Hezbollah-led opposition, a face-off that nearly dragged the country into another civil war. A May 2008 agreement between Lebanon’s squabbling factions established a tenuous domestic peace.
“We are proving that if they give us political stability, we can do a lot of things,” Boustany said.
Throughout Lebanon’s tumultuous past, tourism has remained a major source of revenue, mostly from the millions of Lebanese living abroad who visit during the summer. Still, tourism officials say the government spends little to promote Lebanon abroad.
Joseph Haimari, an advisor in the Tourism Ministry, estimated that tourism contributed US$7 billion to Lebanon’s economy last year, about a quarter of gross domestic product. But without a sufficient advertising budget, he said, “we rely on … media to get our message out.”
Despite the challenges, Haimari says, tourism is among the few industries capable of providing jobs for the idle, unskilled youths who so often get caught up in the country’s political and sectarian battles.
“Tourism should be listed as a top priority of the government,” he said. “But we need proper infrastructure – roads, electricity, water – to allow tourism to expand.”