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From homes to guesthouses: some Lebanese find ways to survive economic meltdown

Despite Lebanon's worst financial crisis since its civil war, guesthouse investment is growing as rural tourism soars, generating much-needed revenue for its cash-strapped citizens and empowering local communities and talents.
An aerial view of the city of Zahle in Lebanon's eastern Bekaa Valley, photo taken during a press tour by the Lebanese air force, July 1, 2021.

Life has never been better for Rehab Noureddine, a 64-year-old who owns and manages a guesthouse in Jbaa, a village in southern Lebanon. 

What was once an old home that she inherited from her father is now a tourist destination for visitors from different parts of the world — something that was beyond Noureddine’s imagination.

“I find pleasure in running this guesthouse as it allows me to show people the welcoming Lebanese hospitality, our traditionally preserved food that we inherited from our ancestors and it gives me financial independence while I feel productive,” Noureddine told Al-Monitor.

These guesthouses are preserving indigenous culture while promoting rural tourism and keeping Lebanese traditions, customs, handicrafts and cuisine alive.

“Besides being a beautiful and unique experience, it lets you live with the villagers and see their way of life,” Caroline Ruth, a yoga instructor from the United States who is spending two weeks in Lebanon, told Al-Monitor.

For Ruth, living in a village guesthouse has given her a different view of Lebanon and allowed her to escape the typical tourist bubble.

There are dozens of listings on online accommodation sites, such as Airbnb, Booking and Agoda, which show immaculate houses, elaborate breakfasts and scenic hillside views in Lebanon.

“They give me goosebumps as they are beautifully decorated, tastefully furnished in authentic Lebanese style and are well equipped,” Noof Alsahlawi, a Kuwaiti photographer who is visiting Lebanon as a tourist, told Al-Monitor.

Alsahlawi is visiting the mountainous regions of Lebanon to see its breathtaking scenic places, traditional houses, high mountains and hiking trails, and to meet the friendly, generous and welcoming locals.

Some guesthouses organize outdoor activities such as bicycle riding and hiking, and fruit and vegetable picking, and some immerse their guests in the Lebanese tradition of artisanal mouneh making, a food tradition of rural Lebanon involving the annual processing of fruits, vegetables, herbs, flowers and animal by-products.

The increasing demand for rural tourism is encouraging homeowners to build or renovate traditional-looking guesthouses as a way to earn a living. 

Al-Monitor spoke to a guesthouse owner in Batloun, a village in the Mount Lebanon region.

When Raafat Zahreddine, a 28-year-old architect saw the potential of running an accommodation business in rural villages of Lebanon, he transformed his family’s 3-bedroom apartment to a guesthouse, calling it “Noqta-airbnb,” in order to get a more stable income in fresh dollars.  

“Knowing that there is a market for rural tourism and accommodations in villages, I renovated the place and devised a business model that would generate more income for us. It has been pretty impressive so far,” Zahreddine said. “It’s affordable, it’s for everyone, and I charge $40 per night."

Zahreddine said the guests are very impressed with the atmosphere, decor, location and hospitality. 

As a result of these guesthouses, local women are now employed and are responsible for the creation of Lebanese food preserves made from seasonal local agricultural products, which attracts tourists as it reflects the country's culinary identity.

Rural tourism allows visitors to get to know the rural areas as well as the nature reserves and the biological diversity that characterizes them.

“More people are escaping urbanized areas to nonurbanized and green spaces to connect more with nature, and support small-scale enterprises and be involved in traditional Lebanese societies and its practices,” Ralph Merchak, eco-tourism and geography teacher, told Al-Monitor.

According to Merchak, the increase in the Lebanese diaspora over the past two years also explains the increasing number of visitors as most of them return to Lebanon for vacations and spend their time exploring and appreciating the hidden gems in their country accompanied by friends they bring from abroad.

Those who are unable to leave Lebanon are finding employment in their region, and more villages are relying on rural tourism to generate much-needed revenue for their communities.

Omar Abi Ali, eco-tourism coordinator at the Shouf Biosphere Reserve, told Al-Monitor, “Rural tourism provides valuable commercial and employment opportunities for communities that have been confronted with the growing challenges of Lebanon’s economy by offering viable livelihoods for their local populations.”

He noted that people are wanting to live with the locals and escape the city traffic, so guesthouses are high in demand and many are taking advantage of this to maximize their livelihood resilience by offering a hospitality service.

The multi-value offered by these guesthouses should not be underestimated, according to Abi Ali, as it is creating jobs and providing income to the unemployed.

“Guesthouses are giving women a greater opportunity to integrate into social and economic life by hosting visitors at home, selling their homemade artisanal products and making traditional Lebanese food with organic vegetables that they purchase from their local farmers,” Abi Ali said.

The popularity of guesthouses shows no sign of shrinking, both for entrepreneurs wanting to establish a business and for visitors who are looking for a relaxing place to escape to.

Al-Monitor reached out to Sireen Amar, head of hotels and accommodations at the Ministry of Tourism in Lebanon, to learn more about the number of guesthouses and her opinion on this development.

“These guesthouses can be the perfect ground to empower local communities and reveal talents and skills among residents. In recent national surveys, we have found that there are 130 guesthouses in different Lebanese regions,” Amar said.

She noted, “We highly support rural tourism as it can also help to disperse tourism effectively by directing tourists away from some of the more well-known busy areas, while providing employment opportunities and economic activity in alternative areas.”

When asked about the roles and responsibilities of the Ministry of Tourism in Lebanon in regulating and ensuring that these guesthouses are legal and are meeting certain requirements, Amar said, “We ensure that these guesthouses are licensed and registered to operate as a legal accommodation and hospitality service. We have eased the process of obtaining a license to own a guesthouse by making the application very accessible and straightforward.”

Experts hope that Lebanon keeps its authentic experiences, unspoiled landscapes and rural destinations for people to visit, as the tourism sector is one of the country's leading economic sectors that significantly contributes to the growth of income and employment opportunities.

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