Turning Devotion into Development – Promoting Religious Tourism in Lebanon

Last night, the streets of Beirut’s eastern suburbs were lit up by fireworks and sparklers, launched from street corners and thrown from balconies. A crowd of several hundred, from young to old, gathered for a festival at a local church. It was July 19, the day of celebration for Saint Elias—and religious festivities were in full swing.

This type of religious passion has long been present in Lebanon, across religions. Feasts, fasts and festivals have always been a part of the country’s culture. Only recently, though, has the country begun to harness this religious passion for a new purpose—tourism and economic development.

In the last few years, Lebanon has been struggling with a precipitous decline in foreign tourism, and the country has been looking for ways to make up the lost revenue. Promoting religious tourism has become a focus for the government.

The Rise and Fall of Lebanese Tourism

The development of religious tourism is a direct response to a declining overall market. And what a sharp decline it has been.

Until the start of the Syrian Civil War, in 2011, Lebanese tourism was on a roll. The region was at peace, and visitors were flocking to the country. Tourism was a $9 Billion dollar industry, and the second-largest contributor to Lebanese GDP.

This tourism was dominated by visitors from the Gulf. They were the perfect customers—they spent $5,000 per week and stayed for weeks or months, renting or buying their own houses. Europeans were frequent visitors, as well.

Now, the bottom has fallen out of the industry. Europeans stopped coming, scared away by regional instability. In early 2016, more troublingly, Gulf tourism slowed to a trickle, as Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Bahrain all banned their citizens from traveling to Lebanon over a political dispute. Tourism is now likely down by over half from its peak.

The Potential for Religious Tourism

Lebanon is responding aggressively to the downturn, promoting and developing rural and domestic tourism options. The promotion of religious tourism, in particular through the development and promotion of Lebanon’s spectacular religious sites, is a big part of the recovery plan.

According to an article in The Executive, the efforts to advance religious tourism—previously run by the Center for Religious and Cultural Tourism—had been suspended because of political sensitivities. The group has now been called back into action, however, and has been working to gain international registration for Lebanon’s religious sites.

The municipality of Byblos is getting in on the act, planning a funicular to link the city with Mar Charbel, the site of the Mar Maroun monastery. This plan is partly modeled after the success of the cable car from Jounieh to Harissa, which has been a huge success, contributing to the immense popularity of the site.

Religious visits alone won’t be enough to get Lebanon out of its tourism slump. With renewed development effort, however, it can be a part of the solution.

Photo Credit: lovemyplanet.com

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