Lebanon must address its own health if it promotes health tourism

Michael Karam struggles to come to terms with Lebanon's determination to market itself as a medical tourism destination.

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I still can’t get over the tourism minister Michel Pharaon’s suggestion that Lebanon’s tourism future lies in convincing sick Arabs to get treatment in Lebanese hospitals then presumably recuperate at their leisure, availing themselves of all the country has to offer.

OK, so the idea of medical tourism is nothing new. It has been touted a lot over the past 15 years as part of what successive ministers have cheerfully referred to as niche sectors, along with religious, heritage, eco, food, winter sports and wine tourism. It makes bundles of sense on paper; Lebanon is after all a niche country, so it has been easy to argue that this is the way forward rather than birds, beach and booze-athon horrors found across the water in Cyprus’s mass tourism.

But it’s all talk. The state has done nothing to advance Lebanese tourism, relying instead on the private sector’s innovation. There has been no strategy and no long-term plan, while any initiatives, such as press trips or roadshows, are conducted in isolation. Imagine an orchestra in which each section plays its own tune and you begin to get a picture of how Lebanon tries to make money from foreign visitors.

I am not saying that Mr Pharaon is wrong when he talks of the potential for selling Lebanon as a hub for rhinoplasty and liposuction – eastern Europe has been cut-price nipping and tucking and implanting for years, so it’s a tried and tested model – but it must be sold as one part of a grand plan, especially as the world has moved on.

The post-September 11 paranoia, which Lebanon very famously milked, has all been lapped up. Not only does GCC investment own great swaths of the major world capitals, it is also rather twitchy about Lebanon, where there exists the real threat of kidnapping or worse, a result of the region’s perceived support for the Syrian opposition.

So we are in a bit of a pickle. It is not enough for the tourism ministry, and by extension the government, to simply go through the motions and throw out hackneyed ideas to an industry that was the backbone of the country’s brief revival between 2008 and 2010 and which would really appreciate constructive leadership and support.

If the ministry really wants to help, it should do its job. It should ensure that all businesses that fall under the tourism umbrella are properly regulated in terms of sanitation, pricing, quality and training, and that it issues an official stamp of assurance to businesses that tick all the boxes. This would in turn encourage others to improve standards.

Furthermore, if we sell ourselves as a boutique destination – and we really can develop niche sectors that offer a lot more than shisha cafes and shopping – and justify the slightly higher price point that comes with it, industry professionals should be properly trained. Thankfully there is no shortage of multilingual human talent, but it needs to be cutting edge to serve a more affluent and informed tourist.

The ministry should also lobby the environment ministry and perhaps gently suggest that it also does its job. The modern long-haul traveller – apparently defined by those who take flights longer than three hours – is very demanding and will be unlikely to share our free and easy attitude to rubbish and our love affair with unfinished concrete buildings.

And while we are on the subject, let’s finally admit that Lebanon is not a beautiful country. It was, and anyone with any imagination can see what could have been. We can’t undo the past, but we can, just about, work with what we have. We need to tear down the eyesores, especially the billboards, fix the roads, improve our driving, ban half-built houses, paint the concrete and pick up the litter.

The Qadisha Valley, which is just hanging on to its Unesco heritage site status, is awash with rubbish and empty shotgun cartridges. Baalbek, Sidon, Byblos and Tyre are similarly unimpressive, when they should be stunning and unique.

Medical tourism? Physician, heal thyself.

Michael Karam is a freelance writer based in Beirut

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