The power of a snowflake

Photo by: Greg Demarque/Executive

Someone must have been smiling down at Lebanon this past December. For the first time in at least five years, it snowed early enough in the year that the Cedars Ski Resort  home to Lebanon’s highest accessible peak at an altitude of 2,870m – began welcoming skiers on December 4 with the country’s remaining ski resorts following suit a few days after (all ski resorts were open by December 19).

The slopes were in full swing over the winter break and therefore able to benefit from the increased activity brought on by locals, expats, Lebanese on holiday and some tourists, launching the 2016-2017 ski season on the right foot.

The snow economy

If the weather continues to bring in snow, this could be one of Lebanon’s best ski seasons in a while. This means that not only will resort operators reap in the profits of a full season, but so will the various businesses surrounding the resorts that range from the small grocery store owner to the five star hotel operator.

During the winter season, the economy of the resort towns is snow-centric. As a spokesperson for  Kfardebian’s renowned French restaurant Le Montagnou puts it: “It’s very simple: when there is snow, we all – the village and all the restaurants – work extremely well and are busy. When there’s no snow, we suffer.” But with the ski season lasting two months at best in recent years, resort owners have realized that for them to remain in business, they have to promote themselves as a summer destination as well.

With these dynamics in mind, Executive took a closer look at some of Lebanon’s leading ski resorts to discuss their achievements to date and their expectations for the rest of the season and the summer.

Skiing among the Cedars

The Cedars Ski Resort is Lebanon’s oldest ski destination. As the owner of Cedars’ Alpine hotel Joseph Rahme recalls, wealthy Palestinians used to visit Lebanon in the 1920s and enjoy winter activities such as snowshoeing in the Cedars even before a proper ski resort was set up.

The first téléskis – or T-bar ski lift – was installed in 1959 by Les Teleskis Des Cedres (Cedars Ski Resort), a company formed by four friends (from the families Fakhry, Keyrouz, Rahme and Sukkar) who rented the land where the resort currently stands from the municipality under a long-term contract. Today, their children have taken over management of the company.

In 2004, the company invested $20 million into a complete modernization of the ski resort, including installing three new chairlifts and other modern equipment. A five star hotel, a few restaurants and a baby ski area were part of the second phase of renovation plans, but this all came to a halt with the onset of the 2006 July War.

Ever since the war, the low level of activity in the resort along with the internal instabilities and regional insecurities that surround Lebanon have discouraged the company from further investment or completing their plans. “As partners, we work in the resort and somehow make ends meet, but we have not returned our 2004 initial investment and are now investing only in the basic operational needs,” explains Elie Fakhry, one of the current owners, adding that it is all the more difficult to consider spending more on such a project when it is only seasonal.

Yet, Fakhry sees hope for the resort and the area for several reasons. To begin with, he believes there is renewed interest in the Cedars and speaks of the increased activity in the area during the summer due to the Cedar Music Festival, which was brought back by Strida Geagea in July 2016 after a long absence. Indeed, Alpine’s Rahme says his hotel was fully booked during the nights of the festival.

Also, a 150,000 square meter chalet resort project – rumored to be a joint venture between Saradar Group and Carlos Ghosn – already broke ground and has Fakhry hoping it will help attract other investors to the area once complete, thereby increasing the land value.

Finally, the election of a president and the stability that Lebanon seems to have been enjoying since could encourage tourists to return, many of whom frequented the Cedars given its nearby attractions such as the Cedars of God forest or the Gibran Khalil Gibran museum.

However, should these tourists flock to the resort to ski it would require a major upgrade in infrastructure. The roads leading to the resort are narrow, so the company has already worked with the municipality on rerouting them to allow for better traffic flow. While the resort can accommodate 8,000 skiers, the parking lot can only fit a few hundred cars and would need expanding.

Standing at the slopes overlooking the Qadisha Valley and the Cedar’s Forest, one is struck by the sheer beauty of the area

As such, Fakhry says they are now looking for potential investors to help them complete their plans for the resort. “We are talking to investors from the area and there are some who are interested in large scale projects like this. We don’t have a problem partnering up with another company if it means that the resort and area will be revitalized. Projects like this can increase the economic activity in the area a lot and that’s what we want for Bcharre,” explains Fakhry.

The majority of those who frequent the Cedars Ski Resort today are from the surrounding areas. While skiers do sometimes come from Beirut, Fakhry says the two hour drive somewhat obliges them to sleep in the area. He also adds that only around ten of the hotels and motels in the area are considered to be good quality, with prices ranging from $170 to $250.

Besides skiing, other winter related activities that can be enjoyed in the Cedars include snowshoeing, cross country skiing and snowmobiling ($30 for a 30 minute ride).

Standing at the slopes overlooking the Qadisha Valley and the Cedars Forest, one is struck by the sheer beauty of the area – and the very real potential that exists among its snow covered mountains.

The modern resort

Zaarour Club lies on 2.5 million square meters of privately owned land in the Metn area of Zaarour (just under Mount Sannine).

The company, which originally was mainly owned by Michel and Gabriel el-Murr, operated the ski resort until being forced to close down when it was badly damaged with the onset of the Lebanese Civil War in the late 1970s. While the resort reopened in the 1990s, it only had basic facilities and primarily attracted customers from the nearby community.

In 2012, Gabriel bought his brother’s shares in the resort and became the majority owner of Zaarour Club, the company that today owns and operates the ski facilities and related activities in the resort. New construction work began in 2013, and to date more than $40 million has been invested into turning Zaarour Club into a state of the art ski resort complete with modern amenities and conveniences, explains Carol el-Murr, chairperson and CEO of Zaarour Club.

The clubhouse itself – the building that skiers enter to access the slopes – gives off a modern and fresh vibe with elements ranging from the elevators and escalators that take skiers directly to the skiing area to the spacious food court that includes Classic Burger Joint and a snack booth serving healthy options such as salads and wraps.

The slopes themselves include four chairlifts which Murr describes as “detachable” (meaning they slow down enough for the skier to comfortably get on or off) and a rolling carpet that helps young skiers safely access the baby ski area.

Since the highest peak in Zaarour Club is at an altitude of 1,800 meters, Murr explains that they invested in the sole snow-making machine in Lebanon that produces artificial snow to supplement the natural snow when patches begin to show.

  The resort also features a 16-room boutique hotel, Le Grand Chalet, which Murr says has been fully booked on weekends ever since they opened for the season, two fine dining restaurants – one in the hotel itself – and La Cabine Du Chef, a French restaurant.

The Zaarour Club also created an artificial lake surrounded by a promenade, where the Zaarour Summer Festival was held last year. Murr says it will be used for similar events this summer in an attempt to make the resort a year round destination and build up a sense of community.

A full day of skiing for adults on weekends in Zaarour Club costs $42, with children under 12 charged $30. As well as strapping on the skis, other snow related activities on offer include tubing and sledding. Murr describes this as their first full season and says it has been very successful with an average of 1,500 skiers on an average day.

Perhaps the biggest challenge for Zaarour Club is that the surrounding area is still largely underdeveloped. The land itself has some privately owned chalets from the 1990s on the lower half (which is not part of the club) and Murr says Zaarour Club is constructing 40 chalets – half of which have already been sold – but few properties or construction sites can be seen on the road leading up to Zaarour. Also, there are only around a dozen restaurants or cafes in proximity to the resort.

To date, more than $40 million has been invested into turning Zaarour Club into a state-of-the-art ski resort

Murr explains that since the resort has only recently been renovated, it will take some time for the area to pick up when it comes to après ski, but that there are already investors developing such destinations.

“There is a future for the area seeing as the renovated resort has only been functioning for a year or two. This will slowly develop with time and there are already six to seven residential and hospitality projects being built around the resort area,” says Murr.

Murr sees Zaarour Club’s proximity to Beirut through the Metn highway as an advantage, making it an accessible option for those who don’t want to get stuck in traffic. “There is an opportunity or place for everyone, given the number of people who like to ski in Lebanon,” she concludes.

The larger than life resort

With more than 100 kilometers of ski runs and 20 chairlifts, Mzaar Ski Resort in Kfardebian is Lebanon’s largest and most developed ski resort. As such, it is also the busiest, with Nicole Wakim, marketing and development manager for the Mzaar  Ski Resort operating company, saying they get up to 7,000 skiers on a sunny weekend (the resort can accommodate up to 8,000 skiers).

This year, the resort added another ski run, The Falcon, at an altitude of 2,111 meters above sea level. “Its purpose was to alleviate the whole domain so that if it doesn’t snow enough at the bottom slopes, we will compensate with the higher up slopes. But so far this season there was no need and we opened them all,” says Wakim.

Mzaar Resort is also the most expensive among the ski resorts Executive spoke to, with a weekend day of skiing costing $66 for adults and $52 for children. For those that don’t want to ski, snow mobiles are a popular activity, with prices starting at $40 for a 30 minute ride.

Some don’t indulge in any winter activities, but instead visit Kfardebian to enjoy the ambiance and play with the snow. This has added to the traffic flow problem, “I believe our biggest problem today is the heavy traffic leading to and from the resort on weekends and holidays, which is due to the many buses and minivans as well as cars unequipped to drive on snow or ice. This causes a lot of frustration for all visitors to Mzaar ski resort,” says Joost Komen, general manager of the InterContinental Mzaar.

This issue was also discussed by Josephine Zgheib, spokesperson for the municipality of Kfardebian, who says they are working with the municipal police and the Internal Security Forces to organize traffic and prevent large, ill-equipped busses from accessing the road.

There is an opportunity or place for everyone, given the number of people who like to ski in Lebanon

The après ski life is also well developed in Kfardebian, with the resort itself including a five star hotel, The InterContinental Mzaar, which boasts 140 rooms (29 of which are suites) and a few restaurants including Olio Igloo, an Italian restaurant-lounge bar.

The resort aside, Kfardebian has around 50 hospitality outlets including hotels, restaurants and cafes, according to Zgheib. For those who wish to rent a chalet for the season instead, Zgheib says there are around 20 chalet complexes in the area.

To further develop the après ski life, Mzaar Resort has developed a full calendar of events that include their annual winter festival and a fashion show on the snow, explains Wakim. “The events help us keep the vibes strong continuously. We are working on Mzaar as a [tourist] destination and although winter is our champion horse, we are working toward making it a summer destination as well.” Wakim says that their summer festival has become a widely popular event that brings life to the area over a several days in August, but they are planning to organize more summer activities to have a sustainable season beyond these few days.

The ski season’s early start this year has benefitted the resort and Kfardebian itself, with Wakim saying that the resort’s hotel and many surrounding restaurants were fully booked on the days leading up to New Year’s Eve, despite the poor weather over the holiday period.

Although it is still too early to speak in terms of concrete tourist numbers, Wakim believes that more Arab Gulf nationals were on the slopes this year than last year. While Komen agrees, he is still holding out for even more tourists in February, when schools around the world take time off to go skiing. “I believe it is still too early to tell the percentage rate of foreign tourists compared to local tourists as the season has just started. Moreover, we have seen many Lebanese living abroad coming to visit their home country, and they are considered foreign tourists. But to give a first impression of foreigners compared to Lebanese nationals, I would say 15 percent of the visitors are foreigners and 85 percent are Lebanese or of Lebanese descent,” elaborates Komen.

Only time can tell whether this winter season will be able to enjoy the arrival of foreign tourists, or whether it will continue to be dependent on the local community. But one thing is for sure: the snowcapped Lebanese mountains are breathing much needed hope and positivity into the country’s ski resorts and surroundings.

Nabila Rahhal

Nabila is Executive's hospitality, tourism and retail editor. She also covers other topics she's interested in such as education and mental health. Prior to joining Executive, she worked as a teacher for eight years in Beirut. Nabila holds a Masters in Educational Psychology from the American University of Beirut.

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