There is a growing local clientele in Lebanon hungry for a more “authentic” experience of the country. Through word of mouth and social media, rural activities, such as fruit picking and hiking, are slowly moving from small groups of connoisseurs to being embraced by a broader public. Guesthouses across the country, once informal, are becoming a stay-cation preference for Lebanese. In the words of Kamal Mouzawak, founder of Souk El Tayeb — which operates several guesthouses, restaurants, food festivals, and markets throughout the country — more and more Lebanese are seeking “the same experience as going to their grandmother’s house.”
Leaving the capital to visit one’s family home in the mountains may be an age-old tradition in Lebanon, but the institutionalization of rural tourism, with guesthouses, tour guides, and proper signage, is a relatively recent phenomenon.
Fostering rural tourism
In the past, guesthouse owners had been accommodating tourists on an ad hoc basis. Around 2010 they came to the realization that they could turn this activity into a profitable business, according to Martine Btaich, president of the Lebanese Mountain Trail Association (LMTA).
Help and training came from USAID, through Diyafa, a network of rural guesthouses that last year launched an upgraded online booking site, and through the Lebanon – Industry Value Chain Development (LIVCD) project, which began in 2012. Initially billed as five year, $41.7 million project — “aimed at improving Lebanon’s economic stability and providing income-generating opportunities for small businesses while creating jobs for the rural population, in particular women and youth” LIVCD was recently given a two-year extension till 2019. The hope being that by then, the activities that received funding and support will have become self-sustaining.
From humble beginnings, the number of guesthouses in Lebanon has risen to around 80, per LIVCD figures, though as of yet, no centralized data on guesthouses exists. Petra Obeid, who is in charge of rural tourism at the Ministry of Tourism (MoT), told Executive that figures are currently being collated.
Obeid says that the MoT supports rural tourism through a national strategy developed in tandem with LIVCD and launched in 2015. Among its aims were to promote awareness of rural tourism destinations, institutionalize rural tourism at the community level of local communities, improve and enforce environmental, cultural, historical, and agricultural protections, diversify and modernize rural destinations, improve data collection, develop a culture of rural tourism among the younger generation and improve networking with the diaspora.
According to Btaich, so far the strategy has validated the efforts of tourism stakeholders. “Many new initiatives at the level of municipalities have been done, creating a snowball effect,” she says. “The challenge now is for the strategy not to sit in a drawer.”
Guesthouses: a reasonably profitable venture
The cost of rooms is varied. If booked through L’Hôte Libanais, a website with a network of 16 guesthouses, prices can range from $80 to $250, with the average room going for $100 – $120. Guesthouses that are part of the Diyafa network, tend to be cheaper. According to LIVCD figures, they cost $60 per person on average, and start as low as $40. Orphée Haddad, L’Hôte Libanais’ founder works at the higher end of market, only listing guesthouses that interact with the local community, serve local food, are environmentally friendly, and that, in his eyes, have “character.”
The popularity of guesthouses shows no sign of waning, both for those looking for a place to relax outside the city and for entrepreneurial types eyeing the opportunity to reinvent family property. Philippe Germanos, who co-runs Guita Bed and Bloom, left corporate life a few years ago to return to his family home and develop the declining farming business that he inherited from his great grandfather.
The five rooms of the guesthouse, which cost from $50 to $75 a night per person, were opened to the public in late 2015. Like many other guesthouses, Germanos claims that he is fully booked on weekends during the tourist season (April-November). To help generate income, and tap into a growing market for rural activities, he decided to include agrotourism and recreation into his business, such as yoga retreats.
Reinventing the family home as a rural getaway does not come cheap. To finance these various projects, Germanos took out two loans, totalling $100,000. “I benefitted from special environmental banking loans (subsidized by Lebanon’s central bank) that allowed me to add solar panels, install low consumption taps, and build a warehouse,” he says.
Other guesthouses resort to private funding, such as Al Haush, which opened its doors a few months ago in the Bekaa. An old family farm, Al Haush mixes luxury guestrooms ($200 a night) with activities such as rosewater making and cherry picking. The owners, the Saab family, invested $60,000 to build their guestrooms. However, the rest of the infrastructure, such as the swimming pool, gardens, and tennis court, were already in place. Like Guita, Al Haush is banking on the public’s interest in agrotouristic activities.
Municipalities aren’t missing out
Private individuals are not the only beneficiaries of the surge in rural tourism. Municipalities are also involved, mostly due to LIVCD funding, which so far has amounted to $2.25 million and has benefited nine different sites, reserves, and associations in Lebanon.
All the municipalities that Executive spoke to which recieived support from by LIVCD, such as Ehmej and Hadath el Jebbeh, have noticed increasing numbers of visitors over the last few years. Jbeil’s Bentael Nature Reserve is hoping to receive 5,000 visitors this year, a 60 percent increase relative to last year.
Though not funded by LIVCD, the manager of the Chouf reserve, Nizar Hani, has noticed the same trend. “Around 90,000 visitors were recorded last year, which is an increase of 14,000 people in comparison to 2015,” he says. Reserves are the only stakeholders in the rural tourism industry that actually manage to keep track of visitor numbers, through the entrance fees that they charge (under LL10,000 on average).
Lack of a legal framework
Guesthouses are regulated by the only decree that exists regarding rural tourism. Published on September 9, 2011, decree number 6298 describes the conditions that a guesthouse must meet, such as being built in a traditional style, having between one and 10 bedrooms, and respecting health and safety conditions. However, the conditions are not specified further, leaving much room for interpretation. While the MoT sends out a team to inspect guesthouses during registration, and conducts follow-up visits, Obeid notes that the variables — such as owners having other employment, or guesthouses being seasonal — make this more difficult.
Regulations are slowly being put into place, but one major obstacle still stands in the way of the sector’s development: the lack of a legal framework. “One cannot promote Lebanon as an alternative tourism destination, or adventure tourism destination, if there’s no work on the law,” argues Gilbert Moukhaiber, director of the tour operator 33 North. “Alternative tour operators that work in any sector outside classical tourism — that is, ecotourism, agrotourism, or adventure tourism — are registered with the MoT as commercial companies, not tour operators,” because no specific licence exists for them.
As a result, responsibility for training local guides rests on grassroots initiatives, such as 33 North or the LMTA. External donors support some of these training events, but they are commercial activities that need to turn a profit. For example, a three-day course with 33 North on mountain safety costs a little under $250. When asked whether this price excludes guides who cannot afford that kind of expenditure, Moukhaiber maintains it is “equivalent to two-and-a-half-days of work as a guide,” which he believes is reasonable.
Despite its growing popularity, recognition from the government and the increasing know-how of professionals, rural tourism in Lebanon still lacks the proper framework to compete with other international destinations. Should the lack of data and a legal framework remain unchanged, its development will inevitably be undermined. Till now, its growth has been dependent on foreign support, an important part of which has recently been diverted to responding to the Syrian crisis. As the LIVCD project winds down, the next few years will be crucial to determining whether the sector can be self-sustaining.