A vital lifeline: Beirut's beach economy booms this summer as tourists flock to crises-hit Lebanon
The summer of 2022 has seen Lebanon transform into a "land of tourists and dollar carriers alone", a reference to the outrageously high prices that are almost exclusively in dollars – a move endorsed by the Ministry of Tourism - with most restaurants and bars now setting minimum bills at 500,000 Lebanese lira per customer.
Despite this, the summer season has become a lifeline - especially for Lebanese youth – forming the major source of employment in the crisis-stricken country. The difference this year was that customers' tips ('baksheesh'), for many, effectively replaced a large part of their wages.
Lower wages, bigger tips
University student Roni says that he waits for the summer to work in restaurants and nightclubs in order to cover his university costs.
"The summer season has become a lifeline - especially for Lebanese youth – forming the major source of employment in the crisis-stricken country. The difference this year was that customers' tips ('baksheesh'), for many, effectively replaced a large part of their wages"
He points out that his monthly wage for working as a waiter in one of Beirut’s restaurants doesn't exceed four million lira (which is equivalent to around US$137 according to the unofficial exchange rate which is around 30,000 lira per dollar).
The restaurant, however, charges its customers in dollars. Roni says he relies on the tips, which are far bigger than he used to get – on a busy night they could reach one million lira if the customers are Arabs or Lebanese expatriates.
Ralph works from 7am to 6pm as a lifeguard in a private swimming pool in Jounieh (north of Beirut), before going to work in a nightclub. He says that in his first job, he relies on the salary, which is US$200 per month. Before the crisis, he would earn US$1,000 for the same work.
Ralph's night shift is as a waiter at a nightclub which does parties on the beach through the summer. For this, he earns a monthly wage of five million lira, and also relies on tips, which, on Fridays and Saturdays, could be as much as three million lira. He says the drawback of seasonal work is the lack of social protection and insurance. He could be fired at any moment "for any mistake", he says, because the "customer is more important than the worker".
Ahla bhal talleh - Welcome to Lebanon
The holiday season has been enthusiastically promoted by Lebanon's Ministry of Tourism, which launched the "Welcome to Lebanon" ('Ahla bhal talleh') campaign early in the summer. Holidaymakers are also providing an essential lifeline to taxi drivers, including the newer "Tuk-tuk" taxis, as well as providing work to street stalls, beach vendors, and the organisers, entertainers and musicians who put on shows and festivals across the country through the summer months.
Vendors of various wares - flowers, candyfloss and balloons - have all been waiting for the summer to make a living, and have also been touched by "customers' generosity" this year. Abu George sells flowers on the cobbled streets of Jounieh, which are filled with outdoor bars and cafes, and he goes from table to table with his wares.
"This is the first time I've made this much money. I don't price the flowers, I leave it up to the customers. I used to get 5,000 lira or at most 10,000 lira, but today, there are people who pay me 50,000 lira, 100,000 and even 200,000 lira for one flower… they are Iraqis, Egyptians, and Lebanese who live abroad".
"I used to get 5,000 lira or at most 10,000 lira, but today, there are people who pay me 50,000 lira, 100,000 and even 200,000 lira for one flower… they are Iraqis, Egyptians, and Lebanese"
In Lebanon, summer jobs are plentiful, especially those at the beaches, private pools, nightclubs and "roof-top" venues. Guesthouses, hotels and chalets fill up with holidaymakers - currently many of these are fully booked until the end of September. This year, despite the crisis, has seen a flurry of new touristic enterprises launched, which have also contributed to widening the job market, especially for the youth and university students.
1.2 million summer visitors
Jeanne Beiruti, general secretary of the Lebanese Federation of Touristic Establishments, describes the summer season of 2022 as "fantastic", and says around 1,200,000 tourists are expected to have visited the country by the end of August. He further says to Al-Araby Al-Jadeed, The New Arab's Arabic-language sister publication, that tourism has brought in $3 billion revenue since May.
Beiruti points out that the tourism sector lost over 40,000 employees in the wake of the economic crisis, many leaving to work abroad. However, he says that new workers have now been trained and entered into the sector, and there are currently around 200,000 employees making a living in tourism, including seasonal and non-seasonal workers.
Beautiful launch of the official summer 2022 campaign “Ahla bhal talleh” (Welcome to Lebanon) to promote and encourage tourism in #Lebanon, anticipating a promising summer season. 🇱🇧 @motlebofficial pic.twitter.com/517UBS9uqi— Ann Dismorr (@Ann_Dismorr) July 20, 2022
He admits that wages are now as much as 50 percent less than before 2019, because of the collapse. What is different, he says, are the tips, which have come to form a major part of employees' salaries, sometimes exceeding their income. This has been noticeably the case with generous tips from expatriate Lebanese and those carrying dollars.
Khaled Nozha, vice president of the Syndicate of Owners of Restaurants, confirmed that "before the economic crisis, the tourism sector employed around 160,000 Lebanese who were registered for social security, and between 40,000 – 45,000 who were classified as seasonal workers.
Reviving a devastated sector
"Due to events in the country, politically, economically and health-wise, with the pandemic and the Beirut Port explosion, many workers from the tourism sector have left. This is especially the case with restaurants that have branches abroad which need Lebanese expertise, that can offer them work with lower salaries than they would usually take - or would be given to workers abroad – because of Lebanon's crisis, which has seen Lebanese workers forced to accept any kind of work. Then there are those who lost their jobs due to the damage to restaurants across Beirut".
"Around 1,200,000 tourists are expected to have visited the country by the end of August"
Nozha points out that the passion for Lebanon in Arab countries, especially Iraq, Jordan and Egypt and from Lebanese living abroad, has galvanised the job market. Some have returned to benefit from the work as restaurants that had been damaged have been reopened. On the other hand, despite the increase in job opportunities, the tourism sector has also witnessed a shortage of manpower, leading many restaurants to hire non-Lebanese staff to fill the gap and cater for the crowds of customers.
But overall, Nozha says the season has been excellent, considering the high operational costs, up to 35 percent of which is spent on buying diesel for electricity, in addition to other costs which are all priced in dollars, because Lebanon has, unfortunately, become "dollarised". However, he believes that many venues have shown resilience in defying the difficulties they face and have preserved a high-quality service and Lebanon's status on the tourist map.
However, he doesn't hide his fears over what will happen to restaurants after the tourist season finishes at the end of September, as only 5-7 percent of Lebanese receive salaries in dollars, whereas those who receive their wages in Lebanese lira struggle to make ends meet and their priorities are to secure medicine, food and basic necessities.
A restaurant owner in Beirut says: "For two months I was looking for a chef, but either people would be asking for a higher wage [than I could afford], over 10 million lira per month, or they would demand their wages in dollars, or they would ask for a higher daily transport allowance because petrol costs more than wages. These were the main problems I faced when trying to find workers, and I'm still suffering from a lack of staff".
He says he cannot raise the employees' salaries even though he has increased his prices because the electricity crisis has led to him spending increasing amounts paying for a subscription with a private electricity generator (paid for in dollars).
On 12 May 2022, the Central Administration of Statistics (CAS) in Lebanon and the International Labour Organisation (ILO) published results from a new survey of the labour force in Lebanon which indicated that unemployment rates rose from 11.4 percent during 2018-2019 to 29.6 percent in January 2022.
According to the survey, informal employment (employment not adequately covered by formal arrangements and social protection schemes), now counts for more than 60 percent of total employment in Lebanon.
This is an edited translation from our Arabic edition. To read the original article click here.
Translated by Rose Chacko
This article is taken from our Arabic sister publication, Al-Araby Al Jadeed and mirrors the source's original editorial guidelines and reporting policies. Any requests for correction or comment will be forwarded to the original authors and editors.
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