Ecotourism is rising as the new trend to attract visitors to Lebanon and encourage Lebanese people to discover their own country.
In February, the Ministry of Tourism launched a five-year plan to develop rural tourism in Lebanon, using a wide definition of ecotourism that covers religious, regional, agricultural, sports and traditional food tourism. In the '90s, ecotourism was the initiative of small groups and nongovernmental organizations — such as arcenciel and T.E.R.R.E. Liban — sharing their passion for the environment with local and international visitors.
Tourism in Lebanon, since the 2006 war with Israel, has been through ups and downs, between a record 361,934 arrivals in July 2010 and the first-quarter 2014 drop with only 229,252, according to the Ministry of Tourism, the Ministry of Finance and the Central Administration of Statistics. According to Executive Magazine’s May 2014 report, “Lebanon needs a bold new beginning in the tourism sector.”
The International Ecotourism Society defines ecotourism as "responsible travel to natural areas that conserves the environment, sustains the well-being of the local people and involves interpretation and education."
Most ecotourism initiatives in Lebanon are based on trails and visits to the countryside, such as the Lebanon Mountain Trail. The trail — the first long-distance hiking trail in Lebanon — was established in 2007 with the financial help of Ecodit LLC to develop, maintain and conserve it. From Andqet Akkar in the north to Marjayoun in the south (293 miles), the trail passes through more than 75 towns and villages, at an altitude ranging from 600 meters to 2,000 meters (1,968 to 6,562 feet) above sea level.
Lebanon Mountain Trail officials also wish to establish new side trails, protect the natural, cultural and architectural heritage and landmarks near the trail and enhance economic opportunities through responsible tourism. “Ecotourism in Lebanon is understood in many ways, some correct and others wrong,” Christian Akhrass, one of the most experienced guides at Lebanon Mountain Trail, told Al-Monitor.
“Our focus and targets are the people in the villages," he said. "We organize two events a year, the Thru Walk and the Fall Trek, events that inject a lot of money into the villages by hiring local guides and internal transport, buying food and using the guest houses." He added, “The situation in Lebanon does not allow a lot of stability in tourism, so we try our best to attract people to come visit the rural, natural and cultural heritage of the country, because it is more than just hiking.”
Ecotourism can be also explored through ecolodges, tourist accommodations designed to minimize their impact on the nearby natural environment.
Eco Dalida, in Tannourine, above Byblos to the north, offers bed-and-breakfast services, but also a local traditional restaurant with meals from the village, home-cooked using the village’s own fruits and vegetables. It is situated at the entry of the Tannourine Cedars Forest Nature Reserve, a protected natural environment, and is owned and managed by a local family. It is invested in the community, buying from local butchers and bakeries and hiring local young people in the high season. It uses solar panels for hot water.
The arcenciel association, based in Taanayel since 1999, set up in 2006 the Taanayel Ecolodge, a traditional youth hostel in the form of a clay-brick house village, an addition to Al Khan al-Makssoud, a traditional Lebanese restaurant also built of clay bricks. It provides various activities involving Lebanese traditions, such as the making of the khan’s traditional dish, "hrisseh;" the preparation of the mounit kawarma, saj el-tannour and wheat jarouche; traditional laundry and sheep shearing, as well as the preparation of coffee over coal. This ecolodge is connected to the Domaine de Taanayel, a 230-hectare (568-acre) property owned by the Jesuits that arcenciel has managed since 2009 for tourism and agriculture, where people come to breathe fresh air and play outside, bike or ride horses.
“Arcenciel’s mission is to contribute to sustainable development by promoting traditional architecture and traditional methods of construction,” Lina Chaccour, communications officer for the organization, told Al-Monitor. “Our vision consists of contributing to the preservation of the climatic, geographical and cultural oasis that defines Lebanon, and participate in the resurrection of Lebanese heritage and architecture.”
Ecotourism has great potential in Lebanon, yet is still underdeveloped, Chaccour said. “We have a beautiful country with different landscapes, lovely weather for outdoor activities and rich in nature,” she said. According to Chaccour, “Initiatives are taking place, but much more can be done if efforts are put together on a national scale.”
Chaccour has ideas for promoting Lebanon’s ecology. “Awareness sessions on ecotourism should be given in schools to raise attention and interest in order to develop this niche. Projects between the Ministry of Tourism, international agencies and civil society should be taking place to highlight Lebanon’s potential in responsible ecotourism.”
This is a call that current Minister of Tourism Michel Pharaon seems to have heard and started acting on in 2014. In October, he was in the village of Barqa in the Bekaa Valley to support Mamlaket el-Lezzeb (The Kingdom of Lezzeb), a nongovernmental organization founded in 2010 to protect and reforest the region. Since then, the inhabitants of Barqa have promoted rural tourism activities by building ecolodges, summer camps for young people to become aware of their environment and reviving local businesses, mostly agricultural. They hope to open trails and get guides to work with them tp revitalize the region.
Rural tourism is the minister's new goal. “It has more potential and impact than just ecotourism,” he told Al-Monitor. “We started working with municipalities and associations in rural areas for them to gather and make an inventory their tourism assets. Then we established maps and calendars [to encourage] tourists to come and visit different regions of Lebanon,” Pharaon added. “In five years, we will have 20-30 regions covered and provide technical support for their development. We also encourage travel agencies to think outside the box by organizing honey, apple and wine trips, for example.” According to the ministry, rural tourism makes up 7% of national tourism, but it could reach 20% in a few years.
Ecotourism respects the environment and local communities. It and with rural tourism put hard currency in the hands of the Lebanese people, who can use them to create new demand, far from the luxurious destinations and entertainment attractions Lebanon has been known for, especially in the coastal area.
This article is part of our August 2015 series on Middle East cultural heritage. To read more articles in the series, click here.
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