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French Version


Restaurants team up with ministry to lure tourists over the Internet

Lebanese restaurant owners and the Tourism Ministry launched a new Web site on Wednesday aimed at wooing tourists to visit restaurants here and to revive the moribund tourism industry in general. The sector has suffered more than most since the summer 2006 war with Israel and the ensuing political skirmishes, and the site is the latest in a series of attempts to resuscitate tourism, including ad campaigns and pleas for public assistance.

The site - www.restovisa.com - sells $25 tickets to restaurants throughout the country, with a minimum purchase of four vouchers. The ticket price is subtracted from the bill when the tourist visits the chosen eatery, and the tickets go into quarterly raffles for plane tickets, hotel accommodation, car rentals and summer camps for children.

The restovisa.com project aims to provide a quick cash injection so restaurants can meet costs (most important among them employee wages), end layoffs and stem the flood of Lebanese hospitality talent emigrating to the Gulf. Many university students have taken to working shifts in restaurants and cafes as a way to pay tuition costs, so lost jobs in the sector could also translate into more college dropouts.

"There's a domino effect," Michel Ghosn, project manager for restovisa.com, told The Daily Star on Wednesday. "The big danger is that if those guys lose their jobs, they won't be able to pay their university. It's very, very important to try to keep jobs in Lebanon - this is the main idea."

The site's target audiences are Lebanese living abroad, as well as Arabs and other fans of the nation, for whom Lebanese cuisine is as much of an attraction as any other tourist destination here, said Nada Sardouk, director general of the Tourism Ministry. The site also features pages catering to various tourist needs, such as travel agencies, car-rental agencies, nightclubs and ecotourism.

The country's tourist destinations have been largely abandoned since last year's war, prompting the launch of restovisa.com and similar projects. Industry leaders have appealed to the government for aid, and Tourism Minister Joe Sarkis and Finance Minister Jihad Azour promised on March 7 to use funds pledged at January's Paris III donor conference to pay the interest on a series of emergency long-term loans to tourist enterprises.

The tourism sector, however, was never mentioned by Prime Minister Fouad Siniora in his press conference on Wednesday updating the use of Paris III funding, and industry representatives have heard nothing from the Tourism Ministry since the subsidy promise.

"Let's hope that there will be another conference where he will announce that something will be given to the tourism industry," said Paul Ariss, president of the Syndicate of Restaurant and Cafe owners.

The Cabinet also vowed to forgive property taxes and municipal fees for 2006 and 2007 for businesses in the Beirut Central District (BCD), which have been almost entirely abandoned since the opposition began its protests December 1. More than half of the companies in the BCD have shut their doors since December.

BCD entrepreneurs, largely dependent on tourism, have also actively pursued their survival - they are preparing to sue the state for compensation and have commenced a marketing campaign to lure tourists. The campaign placed ads in newspapers throughout the Gulf in the last 10 days, and a television commercial will be filmed within the next week, said Tony Salameh, CEO of Aishti and leader of the BCD businesses. The spot should run not only on Lebanese satellite stations such as LBCI and Future, but also on the various MBC networks.

"It's not the best-ever ad, but it will remind people" about Lebanon, Salameh said.

Tourism accounts for roughly 10 percent of Lebanon's $22-billion GDP, and the industry employs upward of 150,000 people. Slightly more than 1 million tourists visited Lebanon last year, and Sarkis has projected a similar figure for 2007. As an example of the industry's hardships, Lebanon's 350 hotels piled up $280 million in losses in the second half of last year.

Beirut 05-04-2007
Redaction
The Daily Star



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