Hala Matar Choufany, president of the Middle East, Africa and South Asia at HVS, discusses the global situation post Covid-19, the new normal and her vision for Lebanon.
In your opinion, which country has dealt best with the Covid-19 pandemic and is on track to establishing a new normal?
Several cities have handled the situation well, especially those in the UAE and KSA. They were able to optimally manage the situation, vaccinate in a timely manner and open up the countries in a systematic fashion.
From a tourism standpoint, both countries were able to minimize their losses during the summer of 2020 and throughout Q1 2021 by capitalizing on their domestic tourism.
In addition, since reopening its airport in July 2020, Dubai was able to achieve an increase in tourism, registering the highest occupancy for 2020 in the region (55 percent).
Lebanon is classified as a country in turmoil, so why should investors consider investing in Lebanon?
For the last 20 years, Lebanon has experienced ups and downs. However, it still has immense tourism potential.
When Lebanon recovers from its multiple crises — political, economic and so forth — it can leverage its rich culture, beautiful landscapes, experiential tourism and religious tourism. In terms of investment opportunities, these segments are less expensive and investment heavy. They remain less costly than investing in large traditional hotels in the capital.. If we were to evaluate potential investment opportunities, I would say, religious tourism is a growing segment that is easily promotable in Lebanon and can fuel the economy outside the capital, especially that the cost is minimal. Focusing on experiential and cultural tourism, by developing glamping sites and trendy resorts, requires limited investment but offers high return.
Ultimately, Lebanon will find its way out of this situation, and I as an investor would invest a limited amount but will look forward to capitalizing on future tourists coming to Lebanon.
The Lebanese are resilient and able to survive any situation. Our dreams will, one day, come true. We need to be true to our culture and potential- we want to remain Beirut which has a rich history and hospitality offering. If we can capitalize more on what we know best, we can make it. We need stability to make people feel safe, and we need to transform the country into something more sustainable. When we start fueling the country with investments, things will improve.
When do you expect global recovery will take place?
Global recovery will happen alongside local recovery in 2024-2025, while travel and tourism will recover mid 2022-2024.
- Eventually, we will go back to attending events. We will see immediate and strong recovery in the leisure segment. It is true that since the pandemic, we have realized that most meetings and business can be conducted remotely. However, people will still need to travel and have face-to-face meetings, which is why the corporate segment will experience post-corona recovery as well.
- Markets in the Middle East and Africa will continue to grow versus other regions.
- Every market achieved its highest growth in a different year, so we cannot compare all markets to 2019 — we need to compare based on the highest growth years. For evolving markets, such as KSA, we look forward to how they will succeed in transforming themselves.
- As for investment, the world is gearing toward service-oriented, personalized, small and experiential projects. There will continue to be investment in major hotel brands, especially in under-developed countries. Wellness development will also continue.
- We have to be realistic, and we need to know more in order to be able to forecast better. Governments and communities need to come together to recover quicker. We heard about the Covid-19 passport and got excited about it, but things are still unclear. There is little understanding of what defines a global passport and how soon it will be implemented. The vaccine will help to rebuild travelers’ confidence; countries who successfully dealt with the pandemic will do better; those who believe in the vaccine will travel; and those who are skeptical about it won’t.
Do you think that Airbnb will affect hotel occupancy in the long term?
Airbnb is a trend that will continue, but during the pandemic, travelers had more confidence in known brands and chains so opted for hotels. After the pandemic, Airbnb will, once again, compete with hotels. It is unlikely to compete with experiential resorts, though.