Phoenicia, a landmark Beirut hotel, has re-opened to the public after two years of painstaking efforts to repair the damage inflicted during the August 4 port explosion in 2020.
Work is still ongoing for the hotel’s original Phoenician Tower and its Roman Tower expansion, with both expected to be fully restored before the end of the summer. In the meantime, the Phoenicia Residences were re-opened in July, ready to take advantage of a busy tourism season in Lebanon.
“There are a lot of people – mainly from the diaspora – that are coming back,” General Manager Manrique Rodriguez told Al Arabiya English. “It would be lovely to have the [whole] hotel ready for them. Even [for just] the Residences, we [had] 25 units reserved for a week between the first and the third weeks of July.”
These will operate as “serviced apartments” for three months, the GM added.
“That means housekeeping, laundry, security [and] parking. By the first week of October, we will open the rest of the property, with all the restaurants, the spa, our banquet facilities, and the remaining rooms,” he continued.
Tourism critical for Lebanese economy
Tourism has long been a critical segment of the Lebanese economy, harking back to the more prosperous days of the country’s so-called Golden Age – lasting from the mid-1950s until the beginning of the Civil War in 1975. This period saw Lebanon often referred to as the ‘Paris of the Middle East.’ It has declined recently due to travel restrictions, political instability, and the continuing collapse of Lebanon’s financial sector.
Around 1.2 million visitors have already registered hotel bookings in Lebanon for the summer. Estimates predict roughly $3 billion in tourism spending, a hopeful return to pre-pandemic levels, despite the country’s ongoing economic crisis.
Lebanese businessman and founder of La Société des Grands Hotels du Liban, Najib Salha, initially constructed the Phoenicia hotel in 1953. Its iconic design incorporated several features of traditional Levantine architecture, including its high ceilings, grand staircases, and towering marble pillars. Opened in 1961, the hotel was an immediate success, operating at an almost constant 100 percent occupancy.
“As [our] first hotel in the Middle East, InterContinental Phoenicia Beirut has a longstanding legacy for us in the region,” said David Todd, the Middle East and Africa Head of Operations for InterContinental Hotels Group.
“It remains a landmark of international arts and culture, having hosted public figures, celebrities, and artists from across the world,” he explained, “and simultaneously represents the rich heritage of Lebanese hospitality.”
The hotel has also become a popular venue, from diplomatic dinners and international business conferences to weddings, baptisms, and birthday parties. Even royals and heads-of-state have enjoyed their luxurious hospitality over the years.
“If you could listen to our walls here, I’m sure you will discover many interesting things,” Rodriguez joked. “On the date that we had the famous revolution, October 17 , the Queen of Sweden was staying with us, together with the President of Ireland, that same day. It is very interesting to see.”
Reconstruction long, slow process
The reconstruction of the hotel has been a long, slow process. The damage inflicted by the August 4 port explosion – located just three kilometers away – was immense.
“Every single piece of glass in the hotel got broken, and every single frame was damaged,” explained Rodriguez. “The ducts were shaken loose. A lot of ceilings collapsed, including the ceiling in my office. The lobby was like a horror movie.”
Everything had to be replaced, he added.
“In a way, we were lucky,” he recalled. “We had probably 200 guests at the hotel at the time, and – when the explosion happened, at 6:15 pm – I would say 95 percent of them were outside by the pool. We had a lot of people with cuts, but nothing major,” Rodriguez said.
It is not the first time Phoenicia hotel has overcome such difficulties. In 1976, and during the early part of the Lebanese Civil War, it was one of several buildings destroyed during the Battle of the Hotels. It was restored and re-opened in 2000. The hotel was damaged again in 2005 by the bombing assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri.
“In this country, we are used to this type of crisis,” said Rodriquez. “This hotel is an institution [and] part of the history of Lebanon. We decided to rebuild with our funds to show the world that Lebanon is coming back, so we are coming back.”
Great care was taken to ensure that many of The Phoenicia’s former fixtures remain intact. However, that does not mean that there is no room for updates.
“When you have a situation like this, it is a perfect opportunity to improve your facilities,” said Rodriguez. “For example, the new windows and aluminiumaluminum frames that have been put in are all state-of-the-art technology; you go into the room, close it, and you feel like you are in a vacuum, which is going to be fantastic for our guests.”
The road to recovery has only just begun, but The Phoenicia’s staff and the her owners are eager to see their beloved hotel restored to its her complete and former glory. The outlook for Lebanon may be improving, but it remains to be seen if the predicted tourism boom will provide the necessary boost to rekindle the country’s ailing economy.
“We are confident that the hotel will retain its legacy as it re-opens ,” said Todd, “and continues to lure travelers to experience the ‘InterContinental Life,’” Todd said.
“We have to look forward to the future,” agreed Rodriguez. “This is a beautiful country with beautiful people. We are a fantastic destination. Nobody can offer what we can offer here.”