Lebanon’s talent can help restore its tarnished image
It was all going so well. On Sunday May 18, the Lebanese tourism minister Michel Pharaon launched the “Live, Love Lebanon” campaign, announcing to the world that his country was once again open for fun in the sun.
“Live, Love Lebanon” may have a clunky name but there is “grip” to this new initiative. It highlights Lebanon’s often-overlooked assets such as eco-tourism, gastronomy, the arts and culture. It is a proper campaign that positions Lebanon as a genuine destination, not a quirky bolthole for homesick expats or Arab tourists up for a bit of shopping-and-shisha.
Mr Pharaon appeared on prime time TV with industry experts, including a hospitality consultant, a foodie, a blogger and a wine tourism organiser. This by itself was a revelation. Someone somewhere recognised that tourism is a serious business with specific skill sets.
But on the same weekend that Mr Pharaon set out Lebanon’s abundant stall, the cover of the weekend magazine of the London Financial Times offered a different narrative. “Lebanon: what future now?” blared the headline. And if the bleak, black and white aerial shot of a Beirut suburb didn’t give the game away, the cliché-laden strapline — “The crossroads of the Middle East is once more on the brink” — surely left readers in no doubt that this was no puff piece.
The six-page feature opened with a double spread of the fiery aftermath of the assassination of the former finance minister Mohammad Chatah on December 27, 2013 in downtown Beirut, the city centre that was rebuilt as a retail and entertainment hub for Arab tourists. “Beirut, the faded jewel of the Mediterranean,” the FT’s David Gardner wrote, “looks as though it is never going recover its lustre.” Ouch.
To be fair, it has been a steady decline. Between 2008 and 2011, a more blingy, sexy and dynamic Lebanon had managed to haul its way back from Armageddon and on to the A-list of international travel. It was the darling of the travel media, which included CNN and the FT’s altogether more upbeat “How to Spend it” section of the weekend paper.
A presidential vacuum and an ineffectual parliament are bad enough but the political, economic, social and sectarian fallout from the Syrian conflict (which includes 1.5 million refugees) has paralysed Lebanon. It is hardly surprising we have returned to the “hard” news pages. Let’s face it, who in their right mind would visit Lebanon this summer?
So what to do? Well, clearly the ministry cannot be seen to throw in the towel, but as well as talking up what we have in Lebanon, it is equally important to promote our exports, be they human, cultural or material. In other words, now is the time, not so much to sell Lebanon, but to sell the idea of what it means to be Lebanese.
Because somehow, Lebanon is still cool and this, in part, is due to how the world sees us. The Lebanese themselves can never be accused of being understated, but our energy has translated into an infectious love for life that could be bottled and sold. And right now we really need to sell brand Lebanon.
Food is the new rock ‘n’ roll and culinary tradition is arguably our finest ambassador. It is no coincidence that the most popular eaterie in London’s upmarket King’s Road at the moment is Comptoir Libanais, the “Lebanese Canteen”. It is the first, but it must not be the last, brand to position Lebanon as healthy, sunny and fun.
Then there’s fashion. Remind the world that Elie Saab is Lebanese and mental images of conflict are replaced by plunging celebrity necklines on the red carpet. He is not alone. France has just decorated Rabih Keyrouz, a Lebanese designer on the cusp of global stardom, for his good works.
Aren’t we always told the best form of defence is to attack? If so, then Lebanese talent must be celebrated wherever it goes. As well as food and fashion, our writers, directors, singers, artists and designers must be given all the support they need to spread our message.
And if that doesn’t work, at least we have the Clooney-Alamuddin wedding to look forward to.
Michael Karam is a freelance writer based in Beirut
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Published: May 26, 2014 04:00 AM