Lebanon at stake hopes that the arrival of summer will bring relief

NIHA, Lebanon (AP) — In a scenic village in the Schuf Mountains of Lebanon, 69-year-old Chafik Mershad pulls out a giant rectangular guestbook and desperately reads the date of his last visitor: 2019 November 16th.

A month ago, anti-government protests exploded nationwide over taxes and the worsening currency crisis. In the midst of such anxiety, few people visited his guesthouse. After that, the coronavirus and the subsequent government blockade took place. The guesthouse officially closed in February 2020. A year and a half later, he has no plans to resume in the country’s current financial crisis.

“Corona really influenced us, but the biggest thing was the currency crisis,” Marshad said at his home above the guesthouse. “In the past, we offered Nescafe, tea, and other favorite things at low prices. Well, one hamburger pate costs that much.”

The dual impact of a pandemic and a catastrophic financial crisis has eradicated the hospitality sector of this Mediterranean country, known for its beaches, mountain resorts and delicious food. Hundreds of businesses, including guest houses like Mershad Guesthouse, have been forced to close.

However, as pandemic restrictions have been relaxed, surviving companies hope that the increase in dollars and domestic tourism spent by visiting Lebanese expatriates can re-establish the wheel of the economy. I will.

Currently, most hotel reservations are from Lebanese expatriates and foreigners from nearby Iraq, Egypt and Jordan. Arrivals at the airport are on the rise, according to Jean Aboud, chairman of the Travel and Tourism Association. Over the past few weeks, Beirut Airport has four daily flights from Iraq, with a total of more than 700 passengers. Chaotic scenes are reported in the arrivals lounge as people flock for mandatory PCR tests.

Many Lebanese, who traditionally spent their summer vacations abroad, are now looking to domestic tourism. This is a more practical option due to travel restrictions, dollars trapped in banks, and a lack of working credit cards.

“In the last two years, the country has changed radically. It’s no longer a destination for nightlife, urban tourism, and what people know. Lebanese are more interested in traveling the country.” Said Joumana Brihi, a board member of the Lebanese Mountain Trail Association. The association maintains a 290-mile (470-kilometer) hiking trail that spans the country from north to south.

Many in the industry say that the number of domestic tourists has increased significantly since the country’s blockade was eased in April. They expect a pile of expatriates to spend this summer, despite the volatile situation, partly due to the devaluation of the Lebanese pound.

This will prevent many places from being closed or “extending the lifespan of at least some businesses,” said Maya Noun, general secretary of the restaurant owner’s syndicate.

Since October 2019, the Lebanese currency has lost more than 90% of its value and is trading on the black market at around 17,000 Lebanese pounds per dollar. The official exchange rate remains £ 1,507 per dollar.

Last year, parliamentarian Michel Daher was accused on social media of saying “Lebanon is really cheap in every way” on TV because of the currency collapse.

“People were laughing at me at the time,” Daher told The Associated Press. “Now, there are many Lebanese expatriates due to price issues, but I also want foreigners.”

Still, the ground scene is not a picturesque vacation destination. Power cuts took up most of the day, and private generators had to be shut down for hours to distribute fuel. The country suffers from a shortage of important products such as medicines, medical products and gasoline.

For weeks, frustrated citizens lined up to fill up with gas stations, with occasional boxing and shooting in their frayed nerves. Lebanon feels ready for an eruption as more than half of its population is in poverty and tensions between denominations are increasing.

The Lebanese currency crisis has led to a more poverty-stricken minority, including a comfortable minority, the so-called fresh dollar whose income can be withdrawn from banks, and a former member of the disappearing middle class who has lost purchasing power. Caused an unpleasant division between and.

The coastal cities of Batraung and Byblos resorts are regularly crowded and are expected to be successful this summer after being closed last year due to a pandemic. Restaurants, pubs and rooftop bars are once again crowded, and some mountain guesthouses and boutique hotels are full.

Still, the idea that expatriates help the economy is partly misleading, said Beirut-based financial adviser Mike Hazard. “Foreign currency from tourists will always be positive, but will it raise or lower the lira (pound) at a slower pace? That’s not really what you can say.”

Many expatriates seem to be wondering whether to visit Lebanon. Some are anxious to reunite with their families after a long separation caused by a pandemic. Others are willing to put it at risk.

Joe Rizk, a 20-year-old mechanical engineering student from Damour, a coastal village in UMass Lowell, USA, said his family had persuaded him to return in August. He said he would bring the missing medicines like Advil for his family and friends.

“If I go to bars, clubs and restaurants every night, I won’t spend more than $ 300 or $ 400 this month,” he said, adding that he would use his family’s house and car while in Lebanon.

However, Hala al-Hachem, a 37-year-old assistant bank manager in Massachusetts, said she was too worried to visit Lebanon with her two children, ages 8 and 6.

Not this time.

“Do you want to go there and put gas in your car so you can’t move? Do you want to go there and risk going to a hospital where one of them gets sick and doesn’t have the medicine you need for treatment? Do you want your sons to wonder why there is no electricity at night? “She asked.

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