Nicolas Lupo

Bitter suite: the story of Beirut's hotels

The Phoenicia, Le Gray and the Holiday Inn

The Phoenicia
Le Gray
Le Gray
Le Gray
The Phoenicia
Le Gray
The Saint Georges
The Phoenicia

The Phoenicia Hotel first opened its doors in 1961. It spent its adolescence in what is now thought of as the halcyon era of Lebanon’s checkered history: the 1960s and early 70s. All the famous people passing through the city in those days wanted to spend time at the hotel, and many Lebanese people coveted Friday nights reveling within its walls. Although the hotel tried to survive during the first years of war, the violence that went on around it and eventually turned it into a battlefield, pushed it into hibernation for nearly a quarter of a century.


But the Phoenicia, one of the most famous hotels in Beirut, was reborn from the ashes of the civil war – members of the board of directors of the Societé Des Grands Hôtel Du Liban decided to restore it in the late 1990s. It reopened its doors, after a huge restoration project, to coincide almost exactly with the new millennium, just as the country as a whole was struggling to leave behind its scars. Now one of the most well-known landmarks of Beirut, its interaction with the city is very different from what is was before the war. 


Half a century ago, despite Beirut's reputation as something of a global hotspot, there weren't many places in the capital to hang out, dance, and meet people. The tourism boom in Lebanon that started during the 1950s required new services and infrastructure with which to host and entertain the increasing number of visitors. The lack of a good network of hotels with the kind of high standards that could attract the European tourists of the time was just one of the things that changed in the city during this period of affluence. Although the hotel Saint Georges already existed and was attractive to both foreign and Lebanese guests, it stood alone in the city.


When new hotels were established they quickly became famous among locals who could afford them. The old pictures in the book, Le Phoenicia, un Hôtel dans l'Histoire, that has been published for the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the Phoenicia, show the dynamism of social life within the hotel: the multitude of events organized, the stars – such as Brigitte Bardot and Claudia Cardinale – who posed in the halls, Omar Sharif playing backgammon, blurred by smoke that enveloped him, and the number of visitors frequenting the bar for drinks. The book is a valuable record of all that took place.


“We used to have more people coming to our restaurants,” laments Said Abou Izzeddin, Operations Director of the Societé Des Grands Hôtel Du Liban, which runs the Phoenicia, “but now we focus on weddings and conferences.” These events need the big spaces that hotels can offer. On a normal weekday, a 5-star hotel might be simultaneously hosting a conference and a fundraising charity event, among other things. Said Izzeddin says that the Phoenicia hosts around 100 parties for newly-married couples every year. The catering capacity at the Phoenicia is huge: it serves 250 meals per day and cooks 800 kilograms of meat, seafood and poultry, accompanied by a monthly total of 3000 bottles of wine. The hotel has 462 rooms and employs 1200 people. One of the three buildings is exclusively dedicated to offices and apartments. 


Diversity and luxury


In 2009 The New York Times chose Beirut as the top city to visit in the world, the main reason being its capacity for luxury. Amongst other things, the newspaper emphasized the opening of the Le Gray, a 5-star hotel property of CampbellGray Hotels.


“Our spacious rooms and suites, our attention to the little details, and our own definition of comfort-oriented understated luxury make us a reference in the luxury industry,” explains Rita Chbeir Saad, the Public Relations Manager of the hotel. Nowadays, most luxury hotels in Beirut offer a wide variety of services for their customers, who can exercise in gyms, relax in spas, or go shopping.


Times have changed


“The actual traveler is more discerning and knows what he wants,” says Said Izzeddin – the only employee remaining from the pre-war period – of modern day visitors to Beirut's luxury hotels. “They expect more, beyond the service,” he continues. The visitors now come from different places: during the 1960s and 70s, the majority of them were European, but today they fly in from the Gulf countries, “and they pay very well,” he adds.


Said reaches for anecdotes from the past: “one day, when I was a kid, my cousin and I secretly entered the hotel [Phoenicia], and do you know who was singing? Shirley Bassey!” During its first phase the Phoenicia was considered by visitors to Lebanon to be an attraction in itself. “People saw it as part of folklore to come to the hotel,” says Said, showing some old pictures. “First you go and visit the Cedars, Byblos, eat mezze and then come to the hotel to watch Nadia Gamal.” Gamal, a well-known Egyptian belly dancer, performed frequently in Lebanon, which was famous in that period for being one of the few countries where you could watch live belly dance shows. 


The ambiance back then was also different. “Now you have a lot on offer [in the city as a whole] and people don't eat at the hotel, but before there was only the area around the hotel, real Zeituna, where cinemas, merchants, white-collar workers, and handicraft shops all co-existed,” continues Said.


The Battle of the Hotels might have forced the Phoenicia to close in 1976, but today it is still there in the same place, next to the uninhabited, wrecked skyscraper that for a short time was the Holiday Inn. “Some people came after the inauguration and expected the same type of services as before,” concludes Said. “Unfortunately you can't [expect that], you have to change with the times.”


Beirut's luxury hotels have, as is true of much of the city, experienced real ebbs and flows, periods of real success followed by periods of equally real hardship and upheaval. But while hard times may have forced them to be pragmatic about the services and experiences they offer, it seems likely they will continue to loom large over the city's scape - even as the city around them changes.


Old images of the Phoenicia Hotel. It used to be famous for its extravagant, unusually shaped pool (image courtesy of the Phoenicia)

The Battle of the Hotels might have forced the Phoenicia to close in 1976, but today it is still there in the same place