Abboud will track and hunt you down if you cheat a tourist in Lebanon
Taxi drivers and restaurants that charge tourists above the odds were in the firing line Friday as Tourism Minister Fadi Abboud vowed to reform Lebanon’s tourism sector. Abboud, who has been in post for almost two months, said he aimed to ensure that “tourists feel at ease the minute they come to the country.”
“I [want to] sort out the problem with the cab drivers who never charge the official rate. It is all about bargaining, and tourists hate bargaining: especially when it comes to taxi drivers,” Abboud told The Daily Star in an exclusive interview.
“To come down to Beyrouth [from the airport] the official rate is $25 but you could end up paying $50, and in some instance $100, which is terrible and I still do not know who is responsible for that,” he added.
“I feel that tourism is doing ok by an act of God rather than an act of men, really. This is going to change and whoever tries to cheat a tourist I will take it personally and I mean it.”
Abboud warned that anyone cheating tourists would face court and harsh penalties.
“If I see that the penalty was not adequate I am going to [have it reviewed]. I have already reported a few judges for not giving adequate penalties. I went to talk to the Minister of Justice and now we have a resident judge here. If the ministry has to sue any restaurant then it will.”
Abboud spoke further about the tricks that restaurants tend to use in order to make more profit: “I want the tourist and the Lebanese people to make sure that they only receive what they order because some of the restaurants tend to come up with a huge platter of vegetables and they charge for it even if it was not ordered. Anything on the table that the tourists did not order should not be paid for,” he said.
The reforms will begin with the very basics of the sector. with requests that restaurants and hotels display their menus outside of their premises.
“This is considered to be at the very basic because tourists would like to see what is being offered by restaurants in addition to their prices range before entering,” he said. “I bet you that by next week, every single restaurant will have the menu outside the restaurant because I am making sure that the tourist police are doing their job.”
Abboud’s effort to improve the quality of tourism in Lebanon is due in no small part to the fact that this sector contributes to 23 percent of the country’s economy, as he said: “Statistics is more of an opinion in [Lebanon], rather than science, and we lack some professional institutions taking care of statistics. Having said that, we estimate about $7 billion of revenues if we received 2 million tourists in 2009,”he said.
He added that the tourism sector in Lebanon offers more job opportunities than the industrial sector.
“[Official figures show] about 135,000 people working in tourism. The real numbers are much more because in tourism you have a seasonal workforce so the real number is somewhere in the region of half a million during the summer.”
Lebanon saw a record number of Lebanese, Arab and European visitors this summer, despite the biting global recession which hit the EU and several oil-rich Gulf states.
Abboud said that 80 percent of tourism in Lebanon was concentrated in Beyrouth.
“We’re going to be working so very hard, first of all, to have a sustainable tourism 365 days per year, which should cover the whole of the country and not just the capital. It is not easy. We are working on it and we don’t have a finalized plan,” he said. “We’re waiting for the budget and we are working on the timetable but at least now we have an idea what we should be doing for 2010.”
One solution Abboud proposed to improve provincial tourism was the opening of Casino Du Liban branches across the country.
“We are not really marketing our gambling facilities outside this country the way we should. Lebanon is the nearest destination for gamblers in countries like Syria, Jordan, turkey. So we should be doing a bit of Vegas magic by more advertising the facilities,” he said.
He added that there should be more glamorous shows available so that people visit Lebanon all year round and pander to the needs of big-spending ‘high-rollers.’
“I would like to see the Casino Du Liban offering free accommodation for gamblers who are willing to buy gambling chips for $5,000, for example. The casino should be able to offer them a free accommodation in one of the hotels outside Beyrouth or around the casino and provide them with transport.”
Abboud has held talks with Middle East Airlines to provide special offers and packages to areas outside of Beyrouth.
“We will be working with travel agents as soon as possible to offer packages tours for somewhere in the region of $1,200 all inclusive,” he said.
He explained it was important to attract tourists to areas outside Beyrouth as the capital’s infrastructure was not capable of facilitating such high numbers of tourists.
“Traffic [in Beyrouth] is terrible. If we go to Faraya or Fakra there is no traffic at all. In Beyrouth the infrastructure is not really built or designed to take all these people.”
He said that this issue would be taken seriously; some $15 billion-worth of infrastructure projects have been planned across the country.
Abboud underlined the importance of advertising in order to attract tourists all year round from all over the world.
“When we’re talking international advertising a million dollars will cover you for a week. We are trying to increase this budget for this year and we are asking now for $7 million, which is nothing really. Last year Egypt spent around $160 million on tourism advertising,” he said.
On top of large-scale infrastructure works, developers are building a number of new hotels in the capital. Abboud said that there are more than 20 international hotels under construction in Beyrouth which will add 1,000 additional rooms.
Head of Lebanon’s Hotelier’s association Pierre Ashkar told The Daily Star that the Grand Hyatt hotel in Beyrouth, which will offer 500 new rooms, had already started excavation works but was not expected to open for another two years. The Four Seasons Hotel has just opened.
“The Summerland Kempinski hotel and resort is also under construction at the location of the old Summerland Hotel and it is going to cost $200 million,” Ashkar said.
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