NNA - According to the most recent statistics, Russian people have proven to have very little knowledge about Lebanon; however, Maria Ivanova, CEO of 'My Lebanon' project has decided to change this situation.
"Lebanon has chosen me, not the other way around. It all happened spontaneously. However, now I believe that my acquaintance with this small Arab country has been foreordained against all the odds," Ivanova said.
She explained that her story with Lebanon had started from her feature movie "City of Strangers", which she had begun preparing after the success of her first feature movie "The Last or Sonuncu" at the 67th Cannes Film Festival.
"Imagine that a Muslim woman comes to a foreign European country, where she is completely alone. She is frightened, confused and devastated. She is locked within four walls, where almost all the action of the film takes place. This psychological drama is about the deafness of humanity living unaware of events unfolding next door," Ivanova said.
While shooting the film in the war-torn Syrian nation, the Russian Embassy in Lebanon, and the Cultural Center helped Ivanova and her team a lot.
"They provided us with an interpreter, a car, and guides. We went to the mountains and to the Syrian refugees living in tent camps. Many of these people had their houses destroyed. Some of them lost relatives. When the filming was over, we had several days left before leaving for Moscow. Before leaving, the Russian embassy invited me to a Christmas party and there I met Lebanese people who love Russia, and who studied in the Soviet Union. They are the Lebanese business and political elite. They proposed to work on a joint Lebanese-Russian cultural project. So, I came up with the idea to organize the First Festival of Russian Cinema in Lebanon and to coincide it with the Year of Cinema in Russia," she said.
"Our project was supported by Rossotrudnichestvo and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Russian Federation, and this festival became their first project of such type. The Lebanese authorities provided us with much help, including the information support. Amal Abou Zeid, a member of the Lebanese Parliament, became the main sponsor of our festival. The festival was being advertised everywhere. Not surprisingly, the event was a massive success," Ivanova said.
She went on to explain that the aforementioned experience had proven that the Lebanese people actually loved Russian cinema.
"The Lebanese love the Russians. Maybe, the reason is in historical relations. The Soviet Union allocated many quotas for the training of Lebanese students in our country. In most cases, they were engineers and doctors. So, the love to Russia was transmitted from generation to generation," she said.
"Another interesting fact about the Lebanese is that they are very curious. They are not indifferent to everything that happens in the world. They are inquisitive and very active. The Lebanese are educated, they know three languages -- Arabic, French and English. After the festival, I travelled a lot to the eastern countries, visiting Qatar, Bahrain, United Arab Emirates and Jordan. However, I realized that my heart belongs to Lebanon. I was anxious to show this amazing country to Russians. I wanted my compatriots meet the true Lebanon. It is safe, surprisingly picturesque, and exciting. Thus a new project was born. I called it 'My Lebanon'," Ivanova said.
As for the problems she had faced during the implementation process of this project, Ivanova explained that most of them were organizational.
"I have built the team. We launched the website and were filling it for several months. Now we have more than 200 unique publications about Lebanon and daily news updates. We developed more than 30 multipurpose tourist routes, comprising yoga and fitness activities, the Arabic language studies, the best nightclubs in Beirut, magnificent Roman temples, skiing, etc. The routes are diverse because we meet the needs of the variety of audiences. We also offer corporate tours, involving conferences, team-building, and various other events."
She went on to share her most recent signature of a memorandum of cooperation with the top 50 hotels in Lebanon.
"We selected them personally ourselves, because sometimes pictures provided by sites are just inaccurate and far from reality. However, catering for different segments of tourists, our partner hotels vary from cheap economy to luxury five-star ones. We have already established a representative office in Lebanon and signed contracts with both the best guides and the most optimal transport companies for the Russian tourists thus far. These large-scale and extensive works are obviously aimed at doing best to satisfy our customers," she said.
As for any competition difficulties, Ivanova made clear that "My Lebanon" did not have any competitors.
"We are the sole information resource about Lebanon in Russian, and we put our hearts and souls into work to ensure it with the top-of-the-line quality. Assuredly, dealing with large-scale projects inevitably means facing haters. Well, I pay no attention for these people. What matters to me most is the professional team, the competent strategy, and the feedback from tourists, businessmen, and locals. These are the essential points," she added.
As for the factors that inspire Russians to visit Lebanon and the advantages of "My Lebanon" project compared to other travel agencies, Ivanova said: "The fundamental advantage is that we are entirely focused on Lebanon. The other travel agencies have hundreds of countries and hundreds of destinations. Even in theory, they cannot know everything about all of them. In addition, we have traveled through the length and breadth of Lebanon not only in theory, but also in practice. Therefore, we offer our customers only the proven and reliable routs. Their quantity and diversity are the further advantages. For example, we have recently developed with Ulysse Travel Club the joint route "Art Beirut", involving astounding exhibitions, galleries of contemporary art and helicopter flights. Moreover, our guides can organize excursions even to the houses of the private art collectors, and if you have a desire, they will take you to the secret club of Beirut, the entrance to which is 'disguised' by the ordinary hair studio."
Ivanova added, "Lebanon is an amazing and very harmonious combination of the East and the West. There is, for example, its own small France - the capital of Lebanon, the city of Beirut. It is regarded as the Paris of the Middle East for its refinement and modernity. Lebanon is often called the Switzerland of the Middle East. This analogy is reasoned not only by the mountains, but also by the financial activity of Lebanon and its powerful banking system."
'Discovering a new world' sounds alluring, but what about the popular stereotype among Russian tourists that Lebanon is not safe? Ivanova was asked.
"I've been in Lebanon for more than 20 times in two and a half years. Frankly speaking, I worry about my safety while travelling either to Germany or to France. Lebanon has a calm atmosphere with no wars. In addition, if it were really dangerous in Lebanon, the Russian tourists would have learned about this first. The domestic authorities act promptly in this sense," she responded.
Furthermore, Ivanova said that the potential of the project was great.
"My team and I have a lot of work to do. The Lebanon Ministry of Tourism is interested in the development of the project My Lebanon - they support us, but we are hoping for a more serious support. Recently we organized a press tour for the reporters of the L'Officiel voyage. The Lebanon Ministry of Tourism defrayed the part of the expenses. But this is insufficient. Now we are working at the expense of our enthusiasm and love for Lebanon, but the development needs additional resources. We believe that they will be provided by the Lebanese authorities. Then our opportunities will increase significantly. Now we are more focused on Moscow and St. Petersburg, but Russia is a giant country, and tourists from other cities are also our potential customers."
She added, "In the framework of my project, I intend to implement "reverse" routes. Many Lebanese dream to visit Russia. For example, recently in Lebanon we met an artist Nizar Dager, who lectures at a university. His students are anxious to visit the Tretyakov Gallery and the Hermitage. Applications have already been accepted. I called the project of Russia's advancement in Lebanon My Russia. We can organize for the Lebanese very exciting and high-quality tours to Russia, and not only to Moscow and St. Petersburg. We have proposals for Dagestan, Kamchatka, Dombai, Altai and Sochi as well."
Ivanova added that one of My Lebanon project activities was helping Russian businessmen with development in Lebanon.
"I have a partner in Lebanon and we are working for strengthening of the business relations between our countries. For example, he deals with the Lebanese businessmen who need a partner or an investor from Russia for the business to achieve a new level. I search such persons for them. Russian businessman also often addresses me with the offer to find the partner in Lebanon. We conduct the transactions to the end, accompany meetings and negotiations, and provide legal assistance, if necessary. We already have a clear understanding of which sectors of Lebanese business are in need of Russian investors. Some domestic investors are also ready to invest in the Lebanese economy. I am sure that business cooperation with Lebanon will soon bear fruit."
"I believe that the thoughtful approach, the proper strategy, and especially the love to Russia and Lebanon will help the complex of My Lebanon and My Russia projects to boost the relationship between Russia and Lebanon to a new level," Ivanova concluded.