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Enjoyable travel? Not anymore for the Lebanese


The Lebanese people are juggling with financial restrictions, including the weekly limits placed on withdrawals of the precious green notes before taking their trips abroad.

How do you plan a trip when you are a Lebanese living in Lebanon, without running the risk of finding yourself overseas and penniless? With bank limits currently placed on withdrawals, -especially on dollars-, in addition to many other restrictions, this issue is a major worry for everyone who plans on traveling. In order to obtain the funds necessary for their trip abroad, the Lebanese are being forced to cope with various banking restrictions and problems, which includes going to the bank on a weekly basis during the months preceding their trip in order to withdraw what money they can. Those who already have dollar accounts are undoubtedly the lucky ones. Despite withdrawal limits (which vary from bank to bank), they can hope to raise the required sum by withdrawing the amount they have been allocated every week. An amount which is however decreasing by the day. Obtaining dollars -whenever one can do so- prevents the lucky individual from having to go to the currency exchange office and losing money in the conversion process, at a time when the Lebanese pound’s rate against the dollar has hit 2,500:1 in recent days.

Helene, a 65-year-old retired teacher, does not have a dollar account. Before deciding to go to Paris -where her son lives-, she had to comply with the rules of the currency exchange offices, which she regrets doing ... "I have no dollars in the bank, and my pension is in Lebanese pounds. So I bought dollars at 2,225 LL, which was quite expensive. I shouldn't have traveled. This could probably be my last trip. Especially since my retirement benefit has lost more than half of its value with the current economic crisis”, she sighs. Laura, a 45-year-old researcher, is for her part in a much more delicate situation. While she has to take a one month business trip to several European countries, her bank has only given her access to $ 1,500 per month, provided she only spends the money through her debit card. “I am asking some friends to lend me euros. Otherwise, I will not be able to manage once I am there. I will probably ask my brother who lives abroad for help, but not everyone can count on relatives for financial help”, Laura tells L’OLJ. “Of course, I am invited to Europe by the company for which I work. But my employer does not cover all my expenses and all my meals. Fortunately the hotel is taken care of, otherwise it would be terrible to manage. The banks change their rules on a daily basis, and that is what scares me the most", she adds.

"In the meantime, we are being somewhat flexible ..."

As for travel agencies, things have become quiet complicated in light of the banking restrictions. But those who work in this field are trying to cope with the situation as best they can. "Since the beginning of the crisis -apart from our most loyal customers-, we have required payments by card or check, in both dollars and in Lebanese pounds at a rate that suits both us and the customers. We are trying to be somewhat flexible, until the situation improves", Sandra Anastasiades, from the Anastasiades travel agency said to L’ OLJ.

Mrs. Anastasiades also denounced the decision made by the national airline carrier Middle East Airlines (MEA) to sell plane tickets to the travel agencies in dollars, while travelers can keep on buying them in Lebanese pounds from MEA themselves. “If people buy the tickets directly from the MEA office, the rate is LL 1,507 per dollar. But MEA is pushing us to purchase dollars, which means we are selling fewer tickets now. If the travel sector goes bankrupt, 5,000 families will be affected”, she said.

A few days ago, MEA caused a state of panic across the country, after announcing its decision to sell its tickets exclusively in dollars. Last weekend, dozens of travelers crowded the airline’s office at Beirut airport in order to purchase their tickets before the decision was implemented. Faced with a major outcry, the company reversed the decree 24 hours later.

Another major problem for travel agencies is the payment of bills to foreign suppliers. “We work with suppliers who are not in Lebanon and who ask to be paid by card. But it’s impossible now due to the limited ceilings set by the banks. So, sometimes we try to make money transfers”, says Sandra Anastasiades.

The same goes for the employee of a major travel agency in Beirut. The latter assures, on condition of anonymity, that the agency "is unable to pay its suppliers abroad. The hotels ask for transfer payments, which is complicated. We are trying to work with the banks as best we can to settle what we owe them", they explained to L’ OLJ.

"We feel trapped in this country"

Lina, 37, is due to travel to Brussels to attend a professional seminar. Her trip is taken care of by her company, but she still has to cover her daily expenses. "I receive part of my salary in dollars and the other part in Lebanese pounds. My bank allows me to withdraw $ 500, so I'm starting to get ready. From now on, one has to collect the money several months in advance to make sure to have enough”, she says. “My employer will be paying for my hotel. But if I get sick and have to buy medicine at the pharmacy, the company will not pay for it. What if I don't have cash? I am worried that my debit card will just stop working while I am abroad", she said. Those who, like Roula -a 36-year-old who works in media-, do not have a dollar account, may have to give up their annual vacation. “I thought I would plan, like every year, a trip of a few days in July with my sister. First, I thought about Portugal, but then it seemed expensive, especially since the dollar is becoming more and more inaccessible, and we can no longer use credit cards abroad. I’m even worried that the situation will get worse by the summer, Roula said to L’Orient-Le Jour. Now she is thinking of “cancelling the whole trip”. "It is frustrating because we look forward to these vacations each year in order to relax. We are suffocating more and more, and we feel like prisoners in this country”, she says.

(This article was originally published in French in L'Orient-Le Jour on the 20th of February)

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