BEIRUT, Lebanon — Lebanon is bracing for an invasion this summer.
It will not involve Israeli tanks rolling across the border, but an estimated 2 million pleasure-seekers spilling out from the airport into the tiny country's congested roads.
"It is good for the country," said one shopkeeper from Beirut as he contemplated the forthcoming traffic jams. But as ministers meet to prepare a logistical response, and an extra 10,000 services staff are being trained, some are starting to question this commonly held assumption.
A huge buzz has surrounded the post-civil-war resurgence of the tourist industry in Lebanon, which the World Council on Travel and Tourism has just ranked the fastest growing in the world. The 2006 war with Israel and the 2008 street fighting in Beirut seemed to threaten the trend, but last year — during which The New York Times named Beirut the No. 1 place to visit — tourist numbers in Lebanon rose an estimated 39 percent. With political stability looking set to continue, a further 20 percent increase is expected this year.
In Beirut's downtown area, opposite the newly constructed Four Seasons hotel, a poster proudly displays a quote from the Financial Times that "visitors are flocking back to Lebanon" beneath the slogan "Beirut is back on the map!"
The billions of dollars generated by tourism are estimated to have contributed up to 25 percent of Lebanon’s GDP, although there are no precise figures available. Economists say the benefits are mainly being captured by a wealthy elite of hotel, restaurant and beach club owners.
"It’s a temporary money-making machine for the few," said Markus Marktanner, an economist at the American University of Beirut (AUB). According to Marktanner, Lebanon’s tourism boom is mostly driven by Arab tourists wanting to take advantage of the country’s climate, permissive attitudes and the availability of alcohol — what he dubbed "boobs and booze tourism." This type of tourism, Marktanner said, creates only low-quality jobs and does not significantly develop the economy.
Jad Chaaban, president of the Lebanese Economic Association, shares Marktanners skepticism about the industry’s contribution to sustainable development, pointing out that it relies on seasonal
workers, employed on an informal basis, with no employment rights. "This trend is dangerous," he said, explaining that people take out loans in anticipation of summer earnings, which are by no means guaranteed. "What if you have a bad season, or a war?"
Prices on everyday good and services are meanwhile expected to be forced up by at least 2 percent this summer, according to Kamal Hamdan, an independent economic analyst. "The poor are paying the bill," he said.
For these dubious economic benefits, the Lebanese have to put up with huge additional demands on public infrastructure and services, which are already struggling to cope with the native population’s needs. This is particularly true in the case of transport.
Last summer, rush-hour traffic on the northern highway out of Beirut was backed up for over a mile. This year, according to a government official, it is likely to be backed up twice that distance, although the government has made some efforts to encourage tourists to stay outside of the capital.
"[Tourism] puts a strain on electricity, transport and water," Chaaban said, "and nothing is done to tackle it. We just want them to come here; it's part of the neoliberal aspect of the Lebanese economy, leaving the market to deal with everything."
Tourists are also turfing Lebanese off their own beaches, according to Mona Harb, an urban design expert at the AUB. "Tourism encourages privatization," she said. Under Lebanon's constitution, the coastline is supposed to be accessible to the public, but in practice the government "rents" beach space to hotels and beach clubs which then charge people for entering.
Jean Beyrouthy, the head of Lebanon’s Federation of Touristic Syndicates, defends beach privatization, pointing out that private clubs provide the beaches with much-needed cleaning and maintenance, but with entrance fees of up to $20, they exclude much of Lebanon’s population. Most of the coastline around Beirut is already privately run, and according to Beyrouthy beaches in Tripoli and Saida are likely to be taken over if tourism continues to grow.
An estimated 70 percent of Lebanon’s tourist revenues come from visitors from other Arab countries. Although they do not all conform to the popular stereotype of cocktail-guzzling, uber-rich "Gulfies," many find Lebanon’s eagerness to market itself as a liberal playground for rich Arabs distasteful.
"I'm not happy with tourists thinking they can purchase anyone and everybody," said Mohammed Ali, a young journalist from West Beirut. "Last summer I saw a Saudi woman with a big car double-parked in Hamra, and she was arguing with the policeman. They think that if they buy the pimp and the hotel they can buy anyone."
"The only capacity tourism develops is the capacity to be obsequious," said Rami Zurayk, a development expert at the American University of Beirut.
In spite of its decidedly mixed benefits however, the idea of tourism as a blessing is difficult to shake off. "Part of me is happy, because it's going to be a going to be a big flow of money," Mohammed Ali said. "The Lebanese are always happy when there is money flowing."