|Tourism Ministry goes online to lure visitors back to stagnating sector
|The Tourism Ministry on Thursday turned to the Internet in an effort to boost sales of the dwindling sector through online marketing. Funded by the US Agency for International Development, the "Building Lebanon's Tourism Businesses through Online Channels" project was launched by the ministry, in collaboration with the International Executive Service Corps (IESC).
"E-tourism" allows tourism enterprises to use the Internet to offer tourism services online. In Lebanon, this would allow the country to market itself as a tourism destination and compete in the global tourism market.
"The global tourism industry has been transformed by the Internet," Marc Yanofsky, president of Management Associates, told reporters.
Planning a trip and deciding on destinations are now performed online, he added.
"People don't turn to the experts anymore; they do, however, read blogs, visit tourism Web sites, or even turn to You Tube to know what real tourists think about a place."
Yanofsky believes that more than 60 percent of travelers go online to learn about a country, compare prices, or book for flights or hotels.
The project conducted a technology assessment of tourism enterprises, such as hotels and inns, restaurants, travel agencies, and municipalities.
The findings confirmed the existence of gap regarding the use of Internet between big and small enterprises.
The e-tourism project is part of a larger program aimed at integrating Lebanon with the international market.
The initiative was not well received by the head of the Lebanese Restaurant Association, Paul Ariss.
"The funds allocated for this program could have been used to tackle more pressing challenges that the tourism sector is facing under the current political atmosphere," Ariss told The Daily Star.
The money could have been used to train staff in the sector, which has been suffering from shortage of qualified workers, said Ariss. Lebanon is suffering a "hemorrhage of professional workers" who have left to work in Gulf countries, he added.
An estimated 6,000 tourism employees have fled the country since the 2006 war with Israel, according to Ariss.
The remaining workforce remains competitive, but is not up to international standards.
"Training these employees comes at huge costs [for businesses]," Ariss said.
However, George Beyrouthy, the president of Sea Resort Hotels in Lebanon, believes the initiative allows the tourism sector to be ready for a re-launch when the current political conflict is resolved.
"Politics is the only challenge facing tourism today" said Beyrouthy. "Lebanon has the potential to be a top tourist destination in the Middle East once the conflict settles."
Still, the tourism sector has witnessed a 40 percent decline in turnover since 2006.
Ariss harshly criticized the government for taxing restaurants that are still open in the Downtown area, where the opposition has been staging a sit in for almost 11 months.
"This is crazy," said Ariss, who explained how the owners plan to meet Prime Minister Fouad Siniora to protest the tax.
As a result, restaurants and other businesses have found creative ways to survive.
Facing the challenge of continuity, restaurants have opened abroad, especially in the Gulf, according to Ariss.
Restaurants outside of Beirut have been hit the most by the weak season, he added.
The Daily Star