Michael Karam: Selling Lebanon to the non-Lebanese

Twenty years ago, I was the editor-in-chief of Visitor, a quarterly magazine published on behalf of the Lebanese ministry of tourism

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Twenty years ago, I was the editor-in-chief of Visitor, a quarterly magazine published on behalf of the Lebanese ministry of tourism. I can't remember how I got the job, but I recall the previous editor was leaving and he suggested my name to a rather desperate owner (affectionately known as "the chief"), who had won the government contract after decades of doing business in West Africa. The idea was he would create the content and print the magazine and make money from advertising sales.

It seemed like a good idea. The chief presumed the ministry's backing would convince advertisers to place full-page ads, especially given that it had been hinted the magazine would be placed on Middle East Airlines, whose in-flight magazine – the perennially poor Cedarwings – charged top dollar for a full-page advertisement. Hotels, car hire companies, shops and the like were also in his cross hairs.

The first reality check was when Cedarwings pulled some serious strings to ensure Visitor never saw the inside of an Airbus. We didn't really take it too seriously and the feeling was this was just a misunderstanding that would eventually be resolved. To soften the blow, the chief was awarded another contract, for a business magazine that promoted Lebanon as a financial hub with mouthwatering investment opportunities, and the chief was assured all the top banks would advertise.

As with everything in Lebanon, nothing really pans out as expected. Ad sales were harder to come by than the chief imagined and to make matters worse, in the spring of 1996 we had a mini-war with Israel, Operation Grapes of Wrath, which, as you can imagine, hardly advanced our cause of selling Lebanon as a tourist Shangri-La.

But I will always have fond memories of Visitor. It was the first magazine I edited and the chief was a wonderful if somewhat stubborn boss. We also had some great writers knocking around Beirut, who would go on to much greater things in journalism, but who at the time were grateful for the work. They penned some great features on Lebanon and its culture.

One day, after working late, the chief drove me home. I asked him if he was happy with the content. “Of course,” he boomed – the chief always boomed even when he whispered – and went on to explain Lebanese tourism. I remember it like yesterday.

"The trouble is," he said, "no one will read our magazine. As a rule, we Arabs don't like reading and the vast majority of tourists who come to Lebanon are Arabs. They come here because we can give them what they can't get at home and – this is very important – we speak their language, we understand them and we flatter them and they like that. It's a very simple relationship. The articles you write are for the ajeneb, the foreigners. They will read what you and your friends write and then go to Baalbek, Tripoli, Jeita and the Qadisha Valley, but there aren't many of them. The Arabs want to eat and walk around and sleep and get good service." And by and large the chief was right. He wasn't right on everything, but on this he was on the money.

I thought of the chief and Visitor last week when I read in The Daily Star that Europeans topped the list of foreign tourists visiting Lebanon in June. Among them, the French apparently love us the most, followed by the Germans and the British. Americans and Canadians as a group came second and the Brazilians third.

In fourth place came the Arabs, with Iraqis cited as the most frequent visitors, followed by Jordanians and Egyptians. The number of Saudi Arabian nationals visiting Lebanon in June dropped by a whopping 47.71 per cent, no doubt a reflection of the current climate in which Gulf Arabs, who used to make up the vast majority of tourists, are following government travel advisories and staying away.

Visitor lasted four issues. I'm not sure about the banking magazine but I think it lasted a bit longer. The chief, who was in his 50s, got married, had a daughter and, if memory serves, went back to Africa. He called me a few years ago with another publishing idea and I, to my shame, palmed him off on a young American who had just landed and was, like me 20 years ago, looking for work.

In the meantime, let’s hope our new European visitors have something decent to read.

Michael Karam is a freelance writer who lives between Beirut and Brighton.


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