Lebanon, apparently, is doing it on the cheap.
While the Maldives and Indonesia broke ties with the New 7 Wonders of Nature campaign after being pressed to pay more and more licensing fees, Beirut only paid an initial fee, according to a Ministry of Tourism employee, but nothing more to the campaign. She would not disclose how much Lebanon paid.
Oula Gerges, with the Ministry of Tourism, said that the ministry does have a budget to promote voting for Jeita, which includes paying for billboards, producing and airing a TV commercial, running ads in newspapers and magazines, and running a social media campaign. The budget, which she also refused to disclose, did not include paying for trips Tourism Minister Fady Abboud recently took to Brazil and Argentina to urge Lebanese in those countries to support Jeita.
She said that if Lebanon’s “wonder” wins, tourism revenues could explode.
Lebanon’s Jeita Grotto, a cave a short distance north of the capital, is one of 28 finalists vying to be recognized as one of the “New 7 Wonders of Nature” by a Swiss-based company that freely admits on its website it is profiting off the endeavor. (Voting ends November 11.)
Founded by Bernard Weber, the campaign exists as two legal entities, a non-profit called the New7Wonders Foundation and a for-profit company called the NewOpenWorld Organization, according to its website. The campaign did not respond to an interview request.
The site says that any cash generated from the campaign will first go to pay administrative costs and that 50 percent of any “surplus” (read: profit) would go to fund “the objectives of the Foundation,” which include promoting “global memory.”
Presumably the rest of the “surplus” is just plain profit. The campaign’s website says that it generates cash through SMS and voice-call votes cast in favor of potential wonders, and licensing fees. It is these licensing fees that rubbed the Maldives and Indonesia the wrong way.
My Maldives, a tourism website that promotes visiting the country, reported that the government withdrew from the 7 Wonders competition (a move the campaign did not recognize) because of the “organizer’s demand for expensive license fees and sponsorship packages in order to compete meaningfully in the remainder of the competition.”
The site reported that the Maldives initially paid a $199 fee but was then pressed to pay various different licensing fees. Gerges, of Lebanon’s Ministry of Tourism, said that the campaign has not asked the ministry for more fees, but did ask for fees from any private sector company wishing to join in the promotion of Jeita.
For example, she said, Bank of Beirut wanted to launch a campaign whereby Jeita voters could win a free car. However, to do so, the bank would have had to advertise the competition, and, based on the New7Wonders’ terms and conditions, would have had to use the campaign’s logo and pay a fee. Gerges said the bank opted not to launch their campaign because of the fee.
In fact, Gerges said, the licensing fees are why no private businesses in the country formally took part in promoting Jeita—except MAPAS, the private company that manages the grotto and keeps 10,700 Lebanese Lira ($7.13) of the 18,000LL entrance fee.
These fees have also prompted local bloggers to deem the campaign a “scam,” and on Facebook, there is both an open group and a community urging people not to vote for Jeita, though neither is very popular.
One argument is that the designation of a “New Wonder of Nature” is something Weber basically invented himself in order to make money. Indeed, the campaign’s website recognizes it is not working in coordination with the UN’s culture and heritage body and that “the principal authority of New7Wonders comes from its own activities.”
Local politicians, on the other hand, have adopted the campaign wholeheartedly. Prime Minister Najib Mikati said voting for the cave is a national duty, and via SMS, which costs $0.10, anyone can vote as many times as they want (however, people can only vote once for free on the campaign’s website).
Presumably to get more Lebanese to vote for Jeita, someone even impersonated the Ministry of Tourism and sent both text and BlackBerry messages to people throughout the country falsely claiming that the ministry would pick up the 10-cent tab for each vote.
Tony Hayek, who works at the Ministry of Telecommunications, told NOW Lebanon that the Ministry of Tourism did not send the messages, rather someone had somehow been able to send them while impersonating the ministry. He said the ministry has does not yet know who sent the messages, but the culprit is being pursued so the state can take legal action.