Ski and Swim the Same Day, an event held March 19 co-sponsored by the Laqlouq ski resort and MARCH, a nongovernmental organization, invited the adventurous for some skiing in the morning and then a trip to the beach at Batroun, in northern Lebanon. It is only one of the many types of activities offered by ski resorts as well as the Lebanese Ski Federation (FLS) to attract locals and tourists to Lebanon's slopes. Lebanon's ski season is expected to close at the end of this month, but other activities continue year-round at ski resorts.
“All the ski resorts had to develop extra activities to attract people during the rest of the year, because when spring comes, people only think about going to the beach,” Freddy Kairouz, FLS general secretary told Al-Monitor. “At FLS, we focus on bringing athletes from all over the world to participate in international competition for skiing, snowboarding and cross-country, but also to enjoy the nightlife, visit Lebanon and of course taste the food.”
Kairouz has developed activities to attract people who are not particularly into skiing, such as Alaska Night, a party in the snow last held March 18 in the Bsharri ski resort that included igloos for the children. Kairouz is also the mayor of Bsharri, a northern village where Lebanon's first school for skiing was established in the 1930s by the French army at the Cedars, which today, along with the resort there, is managed by the municipality.
Skiing in Lebanon rose in popularity in the 1950s, when the first ski lift was installed at the Cedars, and in the 1960s, with the opening of the Mzaar ski resort. Snow-related recreation came to a halt during the civil war (1975-1990) because the resorts closed, but the facilities have since developed and upgraded their equipment to offer optimal service to skiers.
“We now have 15 chairlifts and five ski lifts on around 100 square kilometers [39 square miles] of groomed and marked trails and slopes, and all our equipment is from Europe,” Christian Rizk, the director of the Mzaar ski resort, told Al-Monitor. “We follow French security norms and have an expert from the research firm ERIC [involved in cable transportation engineering] coming from France every year to give us an operating certificate.”
It costs Mzaar millions of dollars a year to maintain equipment and purchase enough electricity to run its lift station. The cost to adult skiers for daily lift ticket packages ranges from $34 to $67. To allow less wealthy clients to ski, designated packages can be bought for $15 at Mzaar, while the municipality of Bsharri provides discounts to the village’s inhabitants ($66 for a season pass) and for the residents of Bsharri province ($100 per season pass). Tourists can arrange to visit the slopes through Lebanese travel agencies, which offer packages including skiing, hotels and transportation.
At Mzaar, Al-Monitor met a group of friends from Paris who purchased a tourist package to test their skiing skills. Ziad, of French-Lebanese descent and who did not provide his last name, said, “For $66 per person per day, everything is included, even transportation and equipment. It is well-organized and allowed us to discover the beauty of the mountains without worrying about logistics.” His French friend Gabriela remarked, “My colleagues at work were worried I was going to Lebanon. They told me it was dangerous.”
With neighboring Syria engulfed in a civil war for the last six years, security is surely an issue for some people from the region, as well as Europe, but apparently not for everyone. “Actually, [tourist] attendance increased this year, although I can’t give a proper number just now,” Rizk said. “As Lebanon has a president now, it shows stability and attracts foreigners.” With the presidency vacant from May 2014 until October 2016, and several terrorist attacks carried out, tourism to Lebanon dropped between 2012 and 2017.
“With a lot of terrorist attacks in Europe, a lot of visitors from the Gulf prefer to come here now,” Kairouz said. “They feel safer, and they don't have to travel as far.”
Marwan, a Lebanese citizen living in Dubai who did not provide a last name, told Al-Monitor that he comes every weekend with his family to ski in his home country. “In Dubai, you can ski indoors, but it’s nothing compared to here. I was reluctant because of the security situation, but it’s actually secure and nice, and also more affordable than Europe.”
According to Kairouz, this season was particularly good for ski resorts in Lebanon, with the five main areas — Cedars, Mzaar, Laqlouq, Faqrah and Bakish — recording some 25,000 visitors on weekends. One reason for the high attendance among locals, tourists and expatriates might have been the early snow, which allowed resorts to open in December instead of January as happened the previous year.
“We had around 30% more [attendance],” Rizk estimated. “When people can come spend their Christmas holidays skiing, of course it’s better for us.”
Nicole Wakim, the marketing manager at Mzaar, told Al-Monitor, “It has been five years since we had that much snow. Since the season wasn’t that good in Europe, a lot of tourists came to Lebanon instead this year.”
With the season coming to a close, resorts and municipalities are relying on weekend trail days and other activities to attract visitors the rest of the year. Events like the Mzaar Summer Festival, walks, dining and parties are pillars of tourism in the mountains during the summer months.