Tourism promotions demonstrate the joke is on Lebanon

The Lebanese tourism ministry's 50-day bonanza of discounts and special offers, a last ditch bid to recoup some of the lost business from last year, has failed to ignite a retail frenzy.

Screen grab of a television commercial from the SmiLebanon campaign. Global Films via YouTube

There was a time, back in the mid-1990s, when Lebanon's annual shopping festival actually got people out on to the streets, creating gridlock and a genuine retail frenzy. But this year, the ministry of tourism's 50-day tourism bonanza of discounts and special offers, a last-ditch bid to recoup some of the lost business from last year, has failed to ignite. As many are pointing out, the tourists didn't avoid Lebanon last year because prices were too high. They stayed away because they feared for their lives.

The figures, even if they have been massaged upwards, still make grim reading. The number of tourists who visited Lebanon last year dropped by 17 per cent on the previous year and nearly 40 per cent on 2010. And so to further encourage our core clients - Gulf Arabs and the Lebanese diaspora - the ministry of tourism also sponsored SmiLebanon, two TV adverts currently airing on regional TV channels. Now I know it's easy to mock, but I have yet to meet or speak to anyone who can see any redeeming quality in either of the two short clips.

I once attended a seminar in Beirut in the late '90s hosted by a clearly bored creative head of a global advertising agency who was on a whistle-stop tour of his company's regional affiliates. An awestruck young woman asked him what he thought about Lebanon's creative talent, "It's atrocious," he said. "In fact it's beyond the valley of the atrocious. It's worse than ads we saw in the Far East in the '70s."

OK, he was clearly having a bad day because we weren't, and aren't, that bad. But the two SmiLebanon ads, made by Clémentine, a local production company run by the daughter of Michel Aoun, the leader of the Free Patriotic Movement, the political bloc to which the tourism minister Fadi Abboud is affiliated, does indeed take us to a pretty scary place.

The first film would have not looked out of place in the last years of communist East Germany with its central motif of a happy child on a carousel rotating past people that make up a proud, happy, creative and hard-working society: there are a brace of couples, one sitting in a snowbound car and another at a restaurant. We have a chanteuse, presumably to represent nightlife, but then it gets a bit weird. The carousel passes a soldier, a construction worker, an aerobics class (remember them?), elderly grapefruit sellers, a young woman in front of a full-length mirror and, wait for it, a primary school math class. It's utter rubbish and nothing to do with tourism.

The next advert is set in the cabin of a Middle East Airlines Airbus starting its descent to Beirut. The passengers have been bused in from central casting. They include another young Lebanese couple; an Arabian Gulf gentleman resplendent in dishdasha, kaffiyeh and agal and; a cheerful Asian businessman in a '70s three-piece suit.

There is a shudder and a brief flickering of the interior lights. The passengers are momentarily anxious, but their fears are unfounded. The plane is not about to plunge into the eastern Mediterranean; instead the cabin crew puts on an impromptu cabaret, backlit with graphics lifted from the opening credits of Charlie's Angels.

The cabin then fills with snow and a girl on skis sticks her bottom in the air. It's all very David Lynch and certainly more entertaining than the boy on the carousel. It says Lebanon is fun, if slightly bonkers.

But as I said, it's easy to mock, and joking aside, it too is garbage. Quite how anyone at the ministry signed off on these creative disasters, let alone parted with any of their paltry budget, is beyond me. The creative minds behind the TV advertisements that are currently selling Malaysia, the Philippines, India and even that hub of hedonism, Zurich, must be roaring with a laughter that carries way beyond the valley of the atrocious.

Michael Karam is a writer based in Beirut

View the latest SmiLebanon ad on YouTube