Kriston Capps is a staff writer for CityLab covering housing, architecture, and politics. He previously worked as a senior editor for Architect magazine.
Tourism has been on a sharp decline in Beirut, once called the “Paris of the Middle East.” Today, few Westerners have any personal connection to the city.
The twin suicide-bomb attacks that killed 43 people and injured more than 240 others in Beirut on Thursday were quickly overshadowed by the deadly attacks in Paris on the following evening. It has come as an understandable shock to the people of Lebanon that the West did not respond the same way to their tragedy. Where was the global outpouring of grief over Beirut?
Any honest accounting of why the world appeared to care less about the victims of the Beirut attacks has to account for Western attitudes toward the Middle East—attitudes that are shaped by ignorance, bias, racism, and the media. There are other, less insidious factors, though, that help to explain the selective solidarity shown by the West, although none of them is especially assuring. The timing of the attacks in Paris, for example, coming as they did on Friday evening, was keyed for maximum exposure in the West. There were more attack sites in Paris, and the attacks were deadlier. (In Beirut, a third bomber was killed before his explosives belt detonated.)
Then there’s the social-media component to consider. While social-media platforms are important for any breaking emergency situation, Facebook served as a special source for news during the Paris attacks. Mark Zuckerberg has explained that Facebook’s Safety Check feature, which is usually reserved for natural disasters, was extended to terrorist attacks after the events of Friday in Paris—so it simply wasn’t an option on Thursday for people with loved ones in Beirut. Users still haven’t been given the option to filter their profile pics with the flag of Lebanon, however.
There is least one other way to explain the West’s selective solidarity with Paris over Beirut: Tourism is on a sharp decline in Beirut, which used to be called the “Paris of the Middle East.” It’s been a long time since the city was seen as a paradise by jet-setting mods. For the better part of the last 40 years, tourism has been totally flat in Lebanon (and therefore Beirut, the country’s leading destination).
Very recently, this situation started to turn around. Tourism in Lebanon had come back from the brink just five years ago, in 2010, when more than 2 million tourists came—a high-water mark since the end of the civil war there in 1990. But since 2010, tourism has backslid by more than 40 percent, only stabilizing in 2014. The ISIS attacks in Beirut are unlikely to help matters.
ISIS has claimed one other attack in Beirut, a car bombing in January, although it may have been responsible for deadly attacks in 2013. Strictly speaking, to the extent that the city’s reputation abroad suffers from the perception that it is always under attack by ISIS, that is mistaken—at least until now. Lebanon now faces war on its southern border (with Israel) and instability along its eastern and northern borders (with Syria). Beirut has been the target of frequent attacks stemming from these sources (and others). If anything, strikes by Israel between 1996 and 2000 and then again in 2006 have done as much to tamp tourism in Lebanon as the more recent violence spilling over its border with Syria. To add insult to injury, Beirut is also suffering a complete governance crisis.
An entire generation of Westerners has never known Beirut to be a beautiful world capital through first-hand or even second-hand experience. By contrast, nearly 7 million people visit the Eiffel Tower alone every year. While it doesn’t take first-hand experience to feel empathy for a place and its people, Westerners know Paris directly and indirectly. They’ve scarcely been introduced to Beirut, and that’s even less likely now.