By Annie Slemrod
BEIRUT: The Tourism Ministry has opened the summer beach season by banning resorts from discriminating on the basis of race, nationality or disability, but reports of bias in entry policies persist and some owners appear unwilling to conform to the new regulations. The issue of racism at Lebanon’s popular beach clubs is not new.
In 2010, the activist group Anti-Racism Movement caused a stir with a video that showed a black woman being denied entry to Beirut’s Sporting Club. This week, the group posted another clip about racism at beach clubs, highlighting what has become a focal point in the discrimination debate: policies that forbid migrant domestic workers from entry, or restrict their access to swimming facilities.
The Daily Star has obtained a copy of a circular issued in late April by Nada Sardouk, director-general of the Tourism Ministry, addressed to the owners of beach clubs and pools.
It urges “quality in receiving customers, with no discrimination in terms of race, nationality or ... special needs.” Among the circular’s other stipulations are lifeguards and free drinking water.
A ministry spokesperson told The Daily Star that it will conduct periodic spot checks of resorts, and those who fail to conform to the circular will be issued warnings and fines.
The spokesperson added that the ministry would move to close repeat violators. The circular “directs the attention to those concerned that the ministry will be firm in implementing them [the requirements] and will unfortunately be forced to take the appropriate legal measures against those who violate it.”
At Beirut’s Sporting Club, which has long been accused of racist policies, public relations manager Walid Abu Nasser told The Daily Star he was aware of the circular, but considered it “totally wrong. I asked them [the ministry] to please specify, in a complete list, all people I should let into private clubs. They should first of all decide what the rules are for private clubs, and what the rules are for public beaches.”
According to Abu Nasser, Sporting Club’s policy “has always been that any kind of worker, bodyguard, security, escort, maid – any help except for those medically required – are not allowed on the premises.” He added that he considered this to be “social,” rather than racial selection.
Abu Nasser said Sporting Club does screen non-members at the door.
“We screen the clients as to whether they have come introduced by someone at the club,” he said. “They also have to fit a certain profile that we require to maintain a homogeneous atmosphere regardless of whether [potential entrants] are Lebanese, workers or foreigners – it doesn’t matter.”
He continued that the club’s policy was not related to “racial issues,” and that the club reserves the right to turn away anyone at its door, including families with many children, or unaccompanied men.
“It has nothing to do with anything except for what we deem is reasonable for the club’s members to feel comfortable in the environment that they are used to. The same thing happens at any nightclub,” Abu Nasser said, adding that the club has foreign members including employees of the United Nations and embassies.
But in the opinion of Human Rights Watch’s Beirut director Nadim Houry, the nightclub comparison hits at the center of prejudice in the policies of Sporting Club and other beaches and pools.
“Nightclubs discriminate and that is intolerable,” he said. “The issue here is there needs to be no discrimination on socioeconomic status, gender, race, or nationality. That has to be fought.”
Lebanon currently has no all-encompassing anti-discrimination law.
“In addition to racism there is classism in Lebanese society, but that doesn’t make [discrimination on that basis] any more OK,” Houry added.
A public relations official at Beirut’s Les Creneaux, which does not allow domestic or other workers such as bodyguards into its pool, similarly denied that his club discriminates on the basis of race.
“As a worker, in general you can accompany [an employer] but you cannot use the facility ... you have to pay to use the facility.” He said that as the club requires membership for entry, domestic workers may use the facilities as invitees.
The policies of other clubs vary. Martisol Rizk, senior marketing executive at Beirut’s Riviera, said that domestic workers can “come in normally and swim.”
Raya Salame, co-owner of the Portemillio in Kaslik, told The Daily Star that officially domestic workers are not allowed into the pool, but unofficially they are permitted to swim “for the safety of the kids.”
She said she is aware of the circular, and added that “we don’t discriminate.” Salame said the only way to access the resorts’ facilities are with a visitor’s card, or by renting a chalet, hotel room or cabin. Anyone, including domestic workers, Salame said, can use a visitor’s card or rent a place at the resort.
Villamar in Khalde declined to comment on its policies, and Beirut’s Coral Beach Resort did not reply to a request for comment. Both places reportedly forbid domestic workers from swimming.
At Edde Sands in Jbeil, marketing manager Joanne Zarife said that domestic workers are allowed access to the pool if they come with or without their employers, as long as they are wearing proper bathing attire.
She added that occasionally, employers ask that domestic workers enter the pool in uniform and “this is discrimination” against workers, hence the bathing suit policy.
Human Rights Watch’s Houry said that while he found the circular “encouraging” in principle, the key will be whether it is enforced.
The ministry said that as it cannot monitor all clubs and resorts constantly, it encouraged anyone who has been the victim of discrimination or witnessed any other violations of the circular’s regulations to file a formal complaint with the ministry.
On balance, Houry pointed out that most of the country’s beaches, even those that allow everyone in, are practically inaccessible to most migrant domestic workers due to their high entrance fees.
“But it is the principle,” Houry added. “It is the visible tip of the iceberg of discrimination.”