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French Version

Hamra merchants lament lagging tourist numbers, power cuts

Retailers say sales up from july but still not at sufficient levels

In a season when retail businesses typically record relatively high revenues, shop owners in Hamra Street are complaining. They lament the absence of wealthy tourists and the usual back-to-school buying spree, saying sales have lagged throughout the summer season despite a steady flow of customer traffic.

Still, many shop owners say August sales have improved compared to July's feeble sums. Some are trying to boost income by offering discounts on most items, while others have tried to cut their expenses by laying off employees.

Shop owners list the tourism slowdown, security worries, political instability, economic policies and government apathy as reasons for the weak sales this summer. In the end, they trace the root cause of their plight back to the political atmosphere in the country.

Known for its cosmopolitan nature, Hamra today tends to be more Lebanese than ever, with few tourists to be spotted.

Most tourists are no longer the well-heeled residents of Gulf countries who regularly filled the tills of local merchants in summers past. Today's visitor is often an Iraqi, says Fadi Asmar, manager of the clothing store Steel Style in Hamra Street.

"Although more tourists have come to Lebanon compared to July of this year, they are not the right type of tourists," he adds. "Most of the tourists that are here this year are from relatively poor countries and have limited sums of money to spend above the costs of their trips."

Lebanese citizens have also scaled back their purchasing. "Most adults have payments to make or have to save for their children's tuition, while the youth prefer to spend their monthly salaries on outings, parties, concerts and beaches, rather than shop for luxury items," says Abdul Aziz at a jewelry store in Hamra. At least, he adds, August's sales at his shop were up 40 percent from July's tally.

Many Lebanese have recently restricted their travel to areas of Lebanon dominated by a religious sect different than their own, out of fear stemming from the political and security difficulties. The end result is a thinner bottom line for retailers.

The latest electricity cuts imposed by Electricte du Liban have also made their way to Hamra Street. Shopping is the main endeavor for most people who visit Hamra, but the summer heat is making it unbearable for most to shop during mid-day, when the sun is at its peak.

And with most shops unable to afford generator expenses, shoppers postpone their purchases till the evening when the heat subsides.

"Women cannot try on clothes when the air conditioning is out. It gets sweaty, and the experience becomes frustrating" says Asmar.

At a cost of $200 to run one air-conditioning unit for a month, an extra expense that eats away from the revenues of the shops, most shops can afford to run only one AC, which is still not enough for most outlets.

With the summer tourist season drawing to a close and the start of the school year in the coming fortnight, the outlook is dim, the merchants say.

Beirut 30-08-2007
The Daily Star

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