A bit of Middle Eastern flair .....
Beirut’s air of sophistication extends to its airport
The Corniche in Beirut may not be the Cannes Croisette, but it gives the Lebanese capital a chic quality among Middle Eastern cities - and a reputation for having a western sensibility. Rafic Hariri International Airport is also an expression of that. As the only commercial gateway to Lebanon, RHIA has seen heavy investment over the years, which is why it consistently ranks highly among airports in the region.
In the mid-1990s the retail operations of RHIA were opened up to bids from international companies with the result that Phoenicia-Aer Rianta, a joint venture between Ireland’s Aer Rianta International operation in the Middle East, and Beirut-based Phoenicia Trading took control.
Essentially this has allowed Beirut Duty Free, as the retail area is called, to transfer European ideas to RHIA with great success. The shopping space at the airport is large at more than 4,500 square metres, including two arrivals shops covering a total of 460 square meters. All your purchases are VAT exempt, and BDF claims good savings versus the domestic market and “cheaper than all regional airports as well as other international airports” - but, as always, it is up to you to check.
Just one terminal, with 23 gates, makes the shopping process easy. There are five distinct retail zones in a street format. In the large beauty section in the west wing top brands like Estée Lauder, Lancôme and Dior have their own customised areas. There is also a specially-constructed bar for makeovers where cosmetic houses take it in turns to field their international make-up artists year-round.
The luxury zone - comprising watches, jewellery, fashion and accessories • is the biggest area at 1,100 square metres. Here you can browse fashion from the likes of Dior, Escada, Ferragamo, Hermès, Lacoste, Lancel, ST Dupont, Furla and Zilli, while some jewellery brands have their own boutiques including Swarovski, and regional brands Zougheib and Bonja.
High-end watches take centre stage in this zone with Baume & Mercier, Bruno Banani, Cartier, Christian Dior, Façonnable, Gucci, Longines, Montblanc, Omega, Omorfia, Rado, Raymond Weil, Tag Heuer, and Tissot just a selection of the top brands present.
Despite the name Duty Free Cell is not a lock-up for would-be shoplifters but a mobile phone retailer in the Electronics area which also claims to have the Middle East’s first Virgin Megastore. Next door, the Food Shop is the place to find delicious Lebanese delicacies from local players like A Hallab, Al-Rifai Roastery and Goodies Delicatessen. Sweets and pastries like Baklava naturally have their own dedicated store, Patisserie Doueihy, where indulgence is your only option if you cross the threshold.
The Liquor and Tobacco area is almost as big as the Luxury Zone and houses the main international cigarette, tobacco, liquor, confectionery and wine brands. A special area showcases the main Lebanese vineyards which are growing fast in popularity. However, perhaps the most impressive aspect of this part of BDF’s retail offer is the massive, walk-in Cigar Humidor which stocks 35 different brands plus a gondola dedicated entirely to lighters and other smoking accessories.
Not only that but RHIA has the distinction of having La Casa Del Habano, a high-end franchise from Habanos, selling fine Cuban cigars including the prized Romeo & Julieta brand. La Casa is a 400 square metre space with a separate VIP lounge with comfy leather seating, a bar and a Cuban ambience. But to gain entry you need to be a privilege card holder, with membership available only if you have been a customer in any of La Casa Del Habano’s downtown shops around the world.
Finally, if you are feeling lucky, there is the chance to win a luxury car by making a purchase in the BDF shops which then qualifies you to buy a ticket to enter a prize draw to win a luxury car. The popular promotion has been going since 2003 at RHIA and is a growing trend at other airports.
To check your allowances, see our guide Lebanon Duty Free Allowances
- Passenger numbers, 2010: 6.8 million.
- Airlines: Around 45 of which the biggest (by number of routes) is, by far, Middle East Airlines with more than 25 destinations. Med Airways, Saudi Arabian Airlines and Iraqi Airways come next, but are a long way behind with just 3-4 destinations each.
- Worth knowing: Oddly, for an airport less than 10km from the city centre there is no direct public transport to RHIA so prepare to join a long taxi queue on arrival.