Lebanon’s official Tourism Office in Paris is the last one left abroad after a series of closures, but it shows no signs of slowing down. The office’s mission is not only to promote tourism, but also to promote Lebanese culture and to project a positive image of the country, and its area of influence covers not just France but other European countries as well, and director Serge Akl says he has several projects planned for 2009.
Akl, 36, took his position in 2000, and says he realized early on that marketing tourism for a country that is politically unstable is a daunting task. Reasoning that it was going to take more than ski slopes and beaches to counteract the negative image perpetuated by the media’s consistent focus on conflict, he settled on culture as a key differentiating factor, especially for a French audience. Ever since, Akl has used this strategy to strengthen Lebanon’s attractiveness to build awareness and interest in France, which in an average year, he adds, supplies the Lebanese tourism sector with its third largest group of visitors.
Culture also offered a positive and productive channel for the office’s activities that was not dependent on the political situation, Akl told The Daily Star. “The cultural side is important, because it enables us to stay on the scene and stay at the forefront of positive news,” he explained.
There have been considerable challenges in recent years, and some political events have been too much for even the Tourism Office to overcome. The 2005 assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri and the 2006 war with Israel, for example, eroded what had been a trend of burgeoning growth in tourism (illustrated by a remarkable 25 percent increase in the number of French tourists visiting Lebanon in 2004). According to Akl, however, figures on the number of visitors to Lebanon in 2007 and 2008 show signs of recovery, and the office’s expectations for 2009 remain high.
Now that a unity government has restored some degree of stability to the Lebanese political scene, he said, his goal is to resume “all the activities related to the development of the tourism market, which were on hold since the end of the 2006 war.” The idea, Akl added, is to “re-launch Lebanon as a preferred destination of French tourists.”
To reach this objective, the Tourism Office follows a course of both regularly scheduled activities and one-time events or projects. Lebanon is represented annually at the two major tourism fairs in Paris, Top Resa and the Salon Mondial du Tourisme, and most months feature exhibitions by Lebanese artists, or foreign artists whose work is relevant to Lebanon. Book signings by Lebanese authors are also a common occurrence, and since 2003, the office has been a regular at the renowned film festival in Cannes, working to build recognition for Lebanese film, attract support for the Lebanese film industry, and promote Lebanon as a destination for filmmakers.
Akl said the office also organizes frequent events to cultivate a favorable relationship with the French press. Since 2001, the office has hosted trips to Lebanon for top publications in France to broaden and enrich the media’s perspective on the country. Trips are designed to cover diverse subjects, from architecture and cuisine to economics sports. According to Akl, these trips usually generate positive publicity, and when leading magazines publish interesting articles about Lebanon, smaller publications normally follow suit with the same theme and tone.
The office also represents events taking place in Lebanon press, such as the Francophone Games takes place in Beirut next fall, or the Capitale Mondiale du Livre book festival scheduled for the capital this coming spring.
One-off events or projects, Akl told The Daily Star, are organized in response to current affairs, local interest, or chance opportunities. Often one thing leads to another, he said, explaining that the ripple effect of one event can create more opportunities for others.
In 2007 the office managed and produced a photography exhibition encompassing work by both Lebanese and foreign photographers that was soon recognized by Les Rencontres Internationales de la Photographie d’Arles, an international reference in photography that confirmed the quality of the works.
During the 2006 war, Akl recalled, the Tourism Office’s local presence and close relationship with the French press enabled it to improvise a response to the information needs of both French and Lebanese journalists. Due to Israel’s illegal air and sea blockade, damage to the country’s communications systems caused by bombardment, and other factors, information in and about Lebanon was not as accessible as it was in Israel, and the office responded by setting up a “crisis and information cell.”
Akl said the unit facilitated the work of the French press, helping its members travel to Lebanon by guiding them through different points on the Syrian border, renting cars and hiring drivers and fixers, arranging lodging for the journalists, and obtaining contact details for Lebanese officials who had evacuated their regular offices for fear that they would be targeted by Israeli air strikes. This impromptu project, he said, enabled the French media to more adequately inform the public about the conflict.
Current plans have a decidedly more cultural bent. On November 25, for example, the office will help organize a show commemorating the 125th anniversary of Lebanese-American writer Gibran Khalil Gibran, which will feature dance, theater, and music. Next spring the office plans to welcome musicians from the “Lebanese Underground” rock movement to give them exposure to the French market. In addition, the office continues to target international filmmakers to pitch Lebanon as a destination for film production.
According to Akl, the benefits of these cultural projects are far-reaching, with potential added economic value for Lebanon that extends far beyond the tourism sector.
“The immense creativity in Lebanon in the areas of art, music, film … is in need of structure to turn it into an industry. We would like to do what we can to begin laying the foundation for that structure” he told The Daily Star, adding that this was helping to increase the number of opportunities for Lebanese artists, filmmakers, musicians, and photographers.
“In order to crystallize the different activities of the Tourism Office, an institutionalization of the relationship between tourism and culture would only be natural,” Akl argued, “and this could help Lebanon to shine even more on the international scene.”