Lebanon’s nightlife industry booms while its regulation lags behind
by Sami Halabi
The festival season is in full swing. American rapper Snoop Dogg is scheduled to play Beirut in August. Visits by Michael Bolton and Paris Hilton, despite one’s personal feelings for the crooner or the spotlight-hungry heiress, are indicators that Lebanon’s summer season is, so far, the most secure since 2004.
The country is expecting “the best tourism season we have ever seen,” says Nada Ghandour, director general at the tourism ministry. According to figures released earlier this year by the ministry, the total number of tourists in 2009 is expected to reach two million, with the majority arriving in the summer months. And Lebanon’s political stability translates not just into a party, but also into cash flowing into the coffers of the country’s quickly expanding nightlife industry.
“Given the amount of people that there are going to be [in Lebanon], everybody will benefit from the season, that’s for sure,” says Oliver Gasnier-Duparc, co-owner and manager of Behind the Green Door, a popular lounge bar in Beirut.
Bars and nightclubs began lighting up Beirut’s nightscape in the mid-1990s on one particular street on the fringes of Beirut’s central district, Monot Street. The allure of untapped market space supplemented by the unquenched thirst of a city without a vibrant nightlife was the perfect recipe for an industry boom. Monot came of age around the turn of the century, with new bars and nightspots sprouting almost weekly.
The phenomenon gave birth to a business model that has been replicated by entrepreneurs looking to make a quick buck.
“You would have a group of five to 10 friends who were ambitious and party animals, and thought ‘let’s each put in $10,000 and open our own bar, and if each one of us brings in just five people every day we will fill up and make money,’” says Ziad Kamel, co-owner of bars Gauche Caviar and Cloud 9 in Beirut’s trendy Gemmayze district. “You see a lot of these kinds of places shutting down and selling off.”
The bars eventually closed and the Monot of today is a skeleton of the once lucrative nighttime hotspot.
“Monot boomed around 1999 to 2000 and now there are only a couple of places left which were the original ones,” says Mark Mouraccade, a long-time bar manager and co-owner of Ferdinand’s bar in Beirut’s Hamra district.
The neighbors were one reason the district ceased to be the epicenter of Beirut’s nightlife — noise complaints forced many clubs to shut down. And then there was the nightlife migration to an older, quainter neighborhood a few blocks away: Gemmayze.
Gemmayze was once a quiet residential area but now has more than 90 bars and restaurants operating in the district. Makram Zeen, president of the Gemmayze Development Committee (GDC), a collective of bars and restaurants in the district, estimates that total yearly revenues of all the bars and restaurants in the area comes to $36 million, or around $400,000 a year for each venue. Zeen, who also owns Le Gardel pub and La Estancia restaurant in Gemmayze, claims the hospitality sector in the district has created between 1,200 and 1,400 jobs and has generated $15 million to $16 million in investment.
The total revenue generated by the nightlife industry in Lebanon is currently not available. When Executive asked Paul Aris, head of the association of restaurants, bars and pastry shops for figures relating to the industry, he laughed and said, “Figures? You must be joking. Even the Ministry of Tourism waits for General Security to give it figures.”
Real estate on the rise
While the nightlife industry has become a welcome addition to Lebanon’s economy, the economics of proximity have also galvanized the real estate sector in areas like Gemmayze and Mar Mikhael. Property in the Gemmayze area is being sold at around $3,000 to $3,500 per square meter, a significant increase from a few years ago, according to research conducted by real estate consultants RAMCO.
“Real estate in the area was being sold for peanuts,” says Zeen. “Now, because of us, the real estate value has increased three-fold.”
While the rising price of property may be one reason most bar owners in Lebanon prefer to rent rather than own, there are other more technical issues to consider. “It’s very complicated to buy properties because usually a building is owned by 15 or 16 people,” says Paddy Cochrane, a bar owner whose family also owns property in Gemmayze.
Sensible or not, the inability or reluctance to buy property has left bar and restaurant owners grappling with soaring rental costs by landlords eager to capitalize on the industry boom. A source who advises bar and restaurant owners on administrative issues said that when one of his clients wanted to renew their rent in Gemmayze, the landlord increased the yearly rate from $40,000 to $120,000.
“There are no rent ceilings imposed by the government,” says Kamel, who is also the treasurer and head of marketing at the GDC. “So if you rented five years ago in Gemmayze for $200 per square meter per year — which you could have easily done — now that your five years are up, the landlord can say ‘you know what I want is $800 to $900.’ [Rent] goes up 400 to 500 percent and all of a sudden it is not feasible for you to run your business.”
The other Gemmayzes
At present the cost of renting a venue for a bar or restaurant in Gemmayze can be “over $900 per square meter [per year],” according to Zeen. As a consequence many entrepreneurs looking to open a nightspot are opting for the adjacent district of Mar Mikhael. “The place was cheap,” says Gasnier-Duparc of Behind the Green Door, who opened last December at the beginning of the Mar Mikhael district. “Most of the people opening up here are doing so because it is cheaper.”
Right now the going rate for a bar or restaurant venue in Mar Mikhael sells at around $450 per square meter per year according to various sources in the nightlife industry.
Another up-and-coming venue for new bars and nightlife is the Hamra district, which housed many bars and restaurants before and shortly after the Lebanese Civil War.
“I ran away from Gemmayze to open here,” says Ferdiand’s Mouraccade. Despite having to pay less rent than bustling Gemmayze, Mouraccade opened his bar in Hamra because he believes the area is “experiencing a revival” and offers a more sustainable business model than other locations. “Hamra is different from the rest because you don’t feel the effect of high season or low season as much,” he says.
Haytham Nasr, who owns and manages the Juniper bar in Gemmayze, believes that because of the district’s increasing costs, entrepreneurs looking to enter the market are now considering other areas. “Any bar owner should maintain their rent at a maximum of 5 to 10 percent of annual revenue and make the initial investment back in a year,” he says. “I don’t see how they are going to profit in Gemmayze.”
Nasr’s new project, called “myBar,” is set to open on the outskirts of Gemmayze around the end of this year. The project is unique in Lebanon because of its business model, operating somewhat like a private equity fund or a public company whereby investors buy “barnotes” that are valued between $2,000 and $20,000 and carry dividends of 0.2 to 2 percent. Nasr’s expected return on investment for co-owners is 274 percent. So far the project has raised more than $650,000 and intends to raise $1 million. “We are very confident that we will reach the $1 million and we are closing off funding in six to eight weeks,” Nasr says.
Although the nightlife industry is currently booming, not all the news coming out of the sector is good. The sheer number of venues opening up has created a substantial increase in the supply of nightspots while rising costs are forcing weaker business models out of the market space.
“Lots of people see that the market is booming, they think it’s easy, open up, and after six months they see that they are not making money and they sell it,” says Mouraccade. Chafic el-Khazen, co-owner and manager of Sky Bar, one of Beirut’s most prestigious sea-side rooftop venues, agrees.
“You know the Lebanese: It’s all about ‘copy-paste’ so there is no creativity,” he says. “The market is over-saturated because it is a lucrative business and everyone will try to get into this industry to make more [than] a little money.”
When a bottle at Sky Bar costs a patron between $200 and $3,000, more than ‘a little money’ becomes a lot of money. Still, Khazen insists that the prices are not unreasonable given the costs he has to cover, which include “over $750,000 a year on fireworks and entertainment.”
For now the alcohol and the money seems to be flowing in Lebanon. However, the industry’s growth is highly volatile and connected to the political situation in the country. “If I showed you a graph of my businesses, in terms of sales and revenues, it looks like a heartbeat,” says Kamel. “Every single time there is a dip, the reason for that dip is political instability and that is true of all the businesses here.”
If the political situation in the country remains relatively stable however, the growth of the industry will show no sign of abating. “It really doesn’t matter who is in power as long as there is stability, security and both parties are in agreement, then everyone benefits,” says Kamel. “This is what the Lebanese have to get into their heads.”
But the sector could benefit from an overhaul of regulations that have caused problems as the nightlife sector has blossomed.
“Gemmayze is a residential area” read the signposts that line the streets of Beirut’s Gemmayze district, where some bars and restaurants operate till the early hours of the night.
The loud music, gridlock and rude valet-parking attendants have pitted angry and politically connected Gemmayze residents against equally connected bar owners. The result is that no one has the connections to trump the other, and the law is weak: the regulations regarding the nightlife industry date back to the early 1970s. Thus, a multi-million dollar industry that is a major pillar of the all-important tourism sector suffers from ineffective regulation at almost every level.
“There is nothing in Lebanese law that constitutes a bar and this is where the issue lies,” says Juniper bar’s Nasr.
Now that the nightlife industry is booming and entrepreneurs are eager to enter the market, the economic growth seems to have overstepped the ability of local authorities to effectively regulate the sector within the confines of the old laws.
“You have so many places that open without any licenses and don’t abide by any regulations or law,” says Sky Bar’s Khazen.
The existing law that governs the restaurant sector classifies establishments as either restaurants or nightclubs. The law also prohibits nightclubs from opening in residential areas or within 100 meters of a religious building. As a consequence, many bars located in residential areas operate using a restaurant license without actually serving food but having to fulfill all the requirements of Lebanon’s antiquated restaurant laws. What’s more, this also places the establishments at the mercy of the evaluation of inspectors from the tourism ministry or the municipality.
“It’s very hard to meet the requirements that were set in the 1970s for a restaurant,” says Gauche Caviar and Cloud 9’s Kamel. “You are in this gray area which allows the government to blackmail you to decide whether you are legal or not, which results in corruption, bribery, bad regulation and places being shut down that thought they were safe.”
One of the main causes of these ailments is the process by which restaurants obtain their licenses. Licensing proceeds in stages with the first stage constituting a “feasibility study,” says Nada Ghandour, director general of Lebanon’s tourism ministry, one of the government bodies charged with regulating the sector. Bar owners apply to the ministry in order to receive a first stage license on the condition that they will actively seek a second stage license to make them completely legal.
“The first stage [license] is pretty easy to get but almost nobody has the second stage [license] and nobody knows why,” says Ferdinand’s Mouraccade. “We apply and we wait and wait.”
The official line
Tourism ministry Director General Ghandour says that it is not the ministry’s fault that establishments do not receive their final licenses, and lays the blame on Lebanon’s building code implemented by local municipalities and the intransigence of owners.
“They take the first stage license… open and say ‘merci, au revoir ministry of tourism. We don’t need you anymore’,” she says. “The [other] major problem in Gemmayze and Beirut is the building law, because the places that are open in the old buildings are not places that were made to become restaurants.”
In order to “help” the establishments, Ghandour has in the past given out “temporary secondary licenses.” A legal expert who spoke on condition of anonymity says the practice goes against legal procedures. “The secondary license is your final permit so legally it cannot be temporary,” says the source. “The first stage is ‘temporary.’”
Local municipalities also regulate the health and safety of Lebanon’s bars and nightclubs. However, even these important issues seem to have been neglected.
“The law states that the straws at the bar must be protected but nobody does it and for fire, nobody checks,” says Gasiner-Dupar of Behind the Green Door. “They always find something, but after that you deal with them [financially].”
The lack of adequate legislation and enforcement to regulate the sector finally culminated in the ongoing dispute between Gemmayze’s local residents, bar owners and government authorities. After several protests in April 2008, one of which featured residents in pajamas blocking traffic and demanding their right to sleep peacefully, the former Tourism Minister Joe Sarkis finally acted, issuing a decree imposing a curfew on all bars and restaurants. The move required many establishments to close during some of their most profitable hours of operation, substantially hurting their businesses.
Kamel claims that the law was completely illegal because it was only applied in one area of the country and was enforced without the consent of the interior ministry and the municipalities, who are responsible for imposing closing times.
“These fanatic residents got together and lobbied against the minister,” says Kamel. “The main people who are bothered are the people on old rent and not benefiting [from the establishments]. If the real residents of Gemmayze, who are the landlords, are bothered then why are they renting the space to everyone?”
During that time, many bars and restaurants were forced to close or threatened with punitive action because they lacked second stage licenses or didn’t have any licenses to begin with. The curfew lasted for around two weeks and eventually dissipated, much to the distress of many local residents and organizations.
“We managed to calm them down for a week or so but they just come back and its worse,” complains Georges Abi Khalil, head of management and coordination at the Gemmayze Development Association (ADG), a local non-governmental organization that works on the preservation and development of the Gemmayze district.
Earlier this year, the current tourism minister, Elie Marouni, along with Interior Minister Ziad Baroud, issued a joint decree reinstating the curfew across Lebanon.
The move set off a wave of protests from local bar, restaurant and nightclub owners who blamed the lack of law enforcement in Gemmayze by local police.
“The street is the busiest street in Lebanon and we don’t even have one security officer in the street, not one traffic cop,” Kamel says of that time. “We don’t have the support of the government to stop double parking or cars going up one way streets and these are all causes of noise.”
After the curfew was reinstated, a delegation of nightlife industry owners visited the interior and tourism ministers and pleaded with them to reconsider. Reports then surfaced about the interior minister standing on the main road in the Gemmayze district asking party goers to reduce their noise levels.
“We saw him stopping cars, himself,” says Kamel. “Imagine the minister of interior peeps in your window and asks you to lower the music. People apologized to the minister and put their music down.”
Around two weeks after the reported policing by Minister Baroud, the interior ministry issued a clarification to the decree stating that the curfew did not apply to establishments that sound-proofed their bars and restaurants. The party was on again, but the problems didn’t disappear entirely.
On July 10 some residents of the Gemmayze district staged another protest in the main street demanding tougher regulation of establishments.
Problems to solve
“A decision has been taken by the Ministry of Tourism and the Ministry of Interior to let them [entrepreneurs] open as many bars as they like,” claims Fadia Kiwan, a local Gemmayze resident who took part in last month’s protests. The protest eventually turned violent when another local resident, Hadi Souaid, claims he was attacked and beaten by the entire staff of a local bar in Gemmayze. “When the police arrived they did nothing,” says Souaid.
In an attempt to pacify the situation, the Gemmayze Development Committee (which represents the bar owners) has issued a 15 point plan to address the issues facing the district. One of the most important of these is the problem of parking an estimated 1,800 cars that enter the district on any given night. To address the problem, the GDC and the tourism ministry have been lobbying to open the Charles Helou station’s three-floor parking lot and turn it into parking space for Gemmayze’s residents and visitors. Minister of Transport Ghazi Aridi has agreed to the proposal in principle but bar owners say the ministry of transport has yet to act.
“All we hear is talk and empty promises,” says GDC president and local bar owner Makram Zeen.
For now the regulation of the industry remains in disarray and, from the lengthy list of reforms Lebanon’s post-war governments still has to implement, it doesn’t seem likely the sector will receive much attention from any new government. “We are in Lebanon,” says Khazen. “Before [improving the regulation of] this industry, there are so many other things that are [so] much more essential that the [Lebanese] need to do.”
First published in Executive Magazine’s August 2009 issue