BEIRUT // Guenady Ragi is not your average travel agent. Most of the itineraries he organises really can be described as a holiday of a lifetime - because most of his clients are getting married. At 8pm on a Friday Mr Ragi is busy behind his desk on the second floor of Nadia Travel, the agency he owns. "You want to get married in a week? No problem. We can schedule a ceremony for next Friday," he says confidently to his client at the end of the line.
"Earlier? The earliest we can manage is Thursday - Monday being Saint Mary's Day and an official Lebanese holiday." In a country that is home to 18 different religious sects, civil marriage is considered by many a necessary evil. Although a civil marriage licence is recognised by the government, the ceremony is widely frowned on by the various religious communities that have successfully had it banned in Lebanon.
To get around the ban, Lebanese have been flocking to nearby Cyprus to exchange wedding vows. The Cypriot embassy in Lebanon says about 220 Lebanese couples were married in Cyprus in 2008, while 2,340 British and 600 Israeli couples chose the island to exchange their vows. The figure nearly doubled to 436 Lebanese couples last year, and to more than 600 so far this year. "I decided to launch the civil marriage tourism service about four years ago after witnessing the civil marriage of one of my close friends," says Mr Ragi.
"It took us about two days to finish all the paperwork. An all-inclusive service made perfect sense to me." Nadia Travel says about 60 per cent of clients seeking a civil marriage in Cyprus are Lebanese who are marrying a non-national, but not necessarily someone with a different religion. As a result, many end up also having a religious ceremony in Lebanon. About 25 per cent of the remaining clients marry outside their faith and 10 per cent are divorced. Divorce is not widely recognised by Christian churches in Lebanon, making a civil ceremony the only option for such couples.
Nadia Travel is not alone in the lucrative civil marriage market. Others - such as Wild Discovery, one of Lebanon's tourism heavyweights - have joined the segment. "In the four years that we've been operational, demand has been doubling approximately every year," says Joumana Azzi, a branch manager at Wild Discovery. Mr Ragi says growth in this tourism segment has been significant. While only 150 couples used his services in 2007, the figure rose to between 500 and 600 this year alone.
This rise in numbers has led to hefty profits for travel agencies. A civil marriage package is priced at US$1,900 (Dh6,978) a couple at Nadia Travel, while Wild Discovery markets it for about $1,650. The agencies have relied on aggressive marketing strategies. The success has led Mr Ragi to this year increase his marketing budget to $93,000, from $25,000. Johnny Modawar, the marketing manager at Wild Discovery, says: "We've used billboards and magazine ad campaigns, which we combined in an internal marketing medium throughout our 10 agencies - including Dubai, Syria and Lebanon."
Mr Modawar says Syria and Dubai are still fledgling markets for civil marriage. "Syria is practically virgin territory." Increased demand at the Dubai office has been essentially fuelled by Lebanese couples living in the UAE, he says. Tourism agents are becoming more creative in designing their civil marriage packages. Wild Discovery's three-day package, for example, consists of two hotel nights and spa access, a tailor-made service for large groups, and extras such as wedding cakes, a hairdresser or stylist. "With some wedding parties consisting of up to 80 guests, I am often branching into wedding planning services," jokes Mr Ragi .
Religion is not the only reason couples opt for a civil marriage. Many simply cannot afford to spend $100,000 - not an outrageous price in Lebanon - on a wedding. "A growing number of young couples are opting for civil marriage because of financial practicality," says Mr Azzi. "In a country where weddings are extremely elaborate and expensive, a civil marriage allows couples to curb the number of guests and rein in the budget."