|Beirut restaurants face new challenges as sit-in ends
|Accrued rent, lack of staff, flood of visitors threaten to overwhelm downtown businesses
As municipality and Sukleen workers removed the remaining concrete barriers and swept the streets in Beirut Central District (BCD), restaurant and shop owners in this fancy commercial area slowly opened their business Thursday.
The opposition decision to end the 18-month sit-in near the Grand Serail brought a near immediate boost to the private sector. Stocks in the Beirut bourse climbed to record levels for the second day in a row on Thursday. Tour operators said they already expected Arab tourists to flock Lebanon in big numbers this summer.
But for many business owners in the BCD, the problems have just started.
"Don't expect all restaurants to resume operations any time soon. Many of these restaurant owners cannot afford to open their doors for customers," Paul Aryss, the head of the Restaurant Owners Association, told The Daily Star.
Aryss said around 30 to 40 restaurants have apparently decided to stay closed this summer because the financial losses they incurred during the 18-month sit-in have been quite heavy. There are a little more than 100 restaurants in the BCD.
"Most of the businesses in the BCD have to pay taxes and municipality fees that accumulated over the past two years. In addition, Solidere will ask the restaurants, shops and offices located in this area to pay all outstanding rents since the opposition pitched their camps," Aryss said.
Restaurant rents in the commercial district ranges between $150,000 to $200,000 a year.
"These rents are piling up and of course Solidere is going to ask for their money now that the sit-in is over," Aryss said.
The government of outgoing Premier Fouad Siniora promised last year to offer relief to businesses in the BCD affected by the long sit-in. Among the promised measures were tax and municipality-fee exemptions to businesses in the BCD.
But Siniora had warned that the decision to help the businesses would never materialize if House Speaker Nabih Berri refused to open the Parliament to endorse these measures.
"There are people coming to the restaurants in the BCD and I expect this number to grow very quickly in the coming days. But what really worries me is the ability of restaurants that stay open to absorb this big number of customers," Aryss said.
He warned of grave consequences if the government failed to help the business owners in the BCD quickly.
He said there were at least 40 businesses in the BCD that had closed permanently during the 18-month long sit-in.
But the plight of the restaurants does not end there.
"Most of the trained chefs, managers and waiters have either received better offers in Lebanon or traveled to the Gulf region seeking higher wages," Aryss said.
He added that some of the restaurant owners will be forced to cook the meals themselves because the chefs and their assistants have left the country.
"One of the five-star hotels in Beirut wants to recruit 300 people right now. I believe there will be more than 3,000 job openings in the hotel and restaurant sector in Lebanon this summer," Aryss said.
He stressed that all businesses are extremely happy that the crisis is finally over and that Lebanon can return to normal, "but this long crisis has hurt us a lot and we hope the authorities will help the businesses in the BCD very soon."
The Daily Star