While Most Lebanese Can’t Afford to Live It Up, Some Can’t Even Afford to Die

'Santa isn't coming to Lebanon': The country’s most dire economic crisis has hit hotels hard this holiday season while families are forced to buy second-hand tombstones

A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el
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A sign reading "Always be merry" is seen among Christmas decorations in downtown Beirut, Lebanon on December 22.
A sign reading "Always be merry" is seen among Christmas decorations in downtown Beirut, Lebanon, last week.Credit: MOHAMED AZAKIR/ REUTERS
A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el

A quick peek at the booking.com website is enough to throw a person into the depths of despair. At least if that person is seeking a vacation in Lebanon at one of the country’s fancy ski resorts 90 minutes from Beirut. The sites boast dozens of miles of slopes, restaurants whose Instagram photos alone will nourish you for a week and numerous ski gear rental shops. The prices, though, are another story. Those seeking a room for the weekend of New Year’s Day and even Valentine’s Day will encounter a polite message: “You just missed booking the hotel.”

The swanky hotels of the famous resort Kfardebian have no rooms left. Intercontinental Mazar is booked until April; other hotels demand the equivalent at a cost of 2,500 to 6,000 shekels ($800 to $1900) for a couple for two nights, breakfast included. Only 18-20 kilometers away from the slopes will you find reasonable accommodations at 500-600 shekels (about $170) per couple per night. These prices do not include ski equipment or ski passes, which cost $30 to $50 per person for three days, plus $10 dollars to rent your skis and poles.

In Beirut itself, on the other hand, there is no difficulty finding hotels at prices to fit any foreign budget – from $120 to $150 per night. The emphasis is on “foreign budget,” because Lebanese citizens wouldn’t dream of paying such prices in these dreadful times.

People walk past a building with Christmas decorations in Beirut, Lebanon, this week.Credit: MOHAMED AZAKIR/ REUTERS

But the picture emerging from the websites is far from an accurate reflection of reality. A Lebanese journalist told Haaretz that you can save a lot if you call the hotel directly and haggle over the price. “Even this season everyone gives 30 to 50 percent discounts,” he said. “Only suckers order through websites. Everyone tries to show that they’re full, and that they will make an effort to save the very last room just for you. This winter, anyone paying in dollars is king. You can’t even get a quote in Lebanese lira. They’ll tell you it changes by the day and can’t even commit from morning to night.”

His testimony is borne out by hotel owners and tourism industry leaders, who report that even on the most desirable dates, between Christmas and New Year’s, hotel occupancy is barely 35-40 percent. Visitors from the Gulf countries, which used to feed the tourism industry, are nearly all gone. It’s not just COVID-19, either. The diplomatic conflict that erupted two months ago between Lebanon and Saudi Arabia, dragging along the rest of the Gulf states, has halted the stream of tourists. Europeans aren’t coming because of COVID, and Lebanese who celebrate Christmas will do so at home this year.

“Santa isn’t coming to Lebanon this year,” wrote Nader Fawz in the Lebanese al-Mudun. “The presents have remained on the shelves, and who can afford them, anyway? But even if Santa comes, his sleigh will get stuck and lost on the way because of a power cut. If he does knock on any doors, he’ll find a shotgun in his face, held by an irate homeowner fearing burglars. “What do you want here?” they will yell. And if he visits an impoverished neighborhood, they’ll steal his sleigh and call him two hours later offering to sell it back for two thousand dollars, he writes.

Pedestrians walk past a large Santa Claus doll on a street in Beirut. Most Lebanese will be staying home this holiday. Credit: Joseph Eid/AFP

Fawz’s bitter humor holds no mirth for those whose lives have been ruined in the most difficult economic crisis Lebanon has known. Not even the dead can find peace in these times. Reports in Lebanon speak of gangs selling occupied graves and tombstones for re-inscribing to families who can’t find affordable burial options. A burial plot in Beirut can cost $20,000 – and that doesn’t include ritual washing of the dead, graveside prayers and a meal for the mourners. Many families are forced to bury their dead in graves shared by multiple relatives. Many can’t afford a proper mourners meal and make do with light snacks. The grave robber gangs keep a lookout on long unvisited graves. They erase the names, exhume the remains and offer the grave for a lot cheaper.

One notch above the dead are the pets, thrown into the street because their owners can no long afford to properly feed or care for them. Even before COVID there were thousands of stray dogs and cats. But various animals shelters report that if once they used to deal with one or two requests, now there are 15 to 20 calls a day to pick up dogs abandoned on the street. “Now it’s purebred pets, whose owners paid good money for them, middle- and even upper-class people who have suffered economically and now are in such dire straits that they can’t keep the animals,” said an activist in one such shelter.

When the minimum wage – after the Lebanese lira’s freefall – is about $70 a month, and a bag of dog food for a month costs $20, saying goodbye to your pooch or kitty becomes an existential necessity. Even those who make that difficult decision can’t relax. The winter has only started, fuel prices are sky-high, power is an occasional visitor and salaries continue to evaporate.

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