The people’s beaches

The challenges of Lebanon’s public beaches

Photo by: Greg Demarque/Executive

The French Riviera, Italy’s Amalfi Coast, and the shores of Greece’s Mykonos all have something in common: the existence of luxury private beach resorts and glitzy beach clubs alongside pristine and well-managed public beaches that are free for all. The presence of proper public beaches in a country is a significant contributor to its appeal to tourists—and hence its economy—not to mention a way to improve quality of life for the country’s residents.

While Lebanon has an abundance of private beach clubs and resorts, ask most Lebanese to name a public beach they would gladly visit—without being harassed by security guards from private beach resorts demanding they leave their “property,” or tripping over garbage—and they will be hard pressed to come up with an answer besides the Tyre Coast Nature Reserve.

Who’s responsible?

Lebanon’s coastline falls under the jurisdiction of the Ministry of Public Works and Transport (MoPWT), specifically the Directorate General of Land and Maritime Transport. It is thus the ministry’s responsibility to protect and manage the country’s public beaches.

All beaches on Lebanon’s coast are, by law, public beaches, but only some of them are designated by the MoPWT as beaches for public use and therefore managed as such. The rest of Lebanon’s beaches are either neglected or used by private beach resorts as an extension of their projects. While no one can stop you from spreading a towel on any beach in the country, you may be harassed for doing so, if not prevented initially by gates and entry fees.

According to Iffat Idriss of Operation Big Blue (OBB), an activist network that seeks to protect the Mediterranean coast, in 2001 the MoPWT developed a strategy that designated fourteen coastal areas in various Lebanese cities as public beaches. The plan proposed to receive bids from NGOs and institutions to manage these beaches on the ministry’s behalf. That strategy never saw the light of day, she says. (The MoPWT did not respond to multiple requests from Executive to confirm the existence of such a plan, or other information provided by sources for this article.)

Jean Beiruti, the head of the syndicate of seaside resort operators, claims that only seven truly public beaches remain today, and that the MoPWT had been working on managing and developing these beaches before its budget was recently reduced. This means that operational expenses, such as hiring lifeguards, maintaining the beaches’ cleanliness, and constructing bathrooms, can no longer be funded, explains Beiruti, and without a budget to fund the maintenance of public beaches, there may soon be none left.

The public beaches that are still maintained today are either run by a city’s municipality or—in the case, for instance, of Ramlet el-Baida—by an organization on behalf of the MoPWT. Executive met with three public beach operators to learn more about the different models of managing a public asset like a beach, in a way that ensures all stakeholders’ rights are respected while providing a well-run facility attracting locals and tourists alike.

Ramlet el-Baida

The only public beach in Beirut is in Ramlet el-Baida, one of Lebanon’s more expensive areas in terms of real estate—as evidenced by the lavish residential buildings facing the beach. The 1,300m long strip of beach was popular in the 1960s and early 1970s, before the civil war took over and transformed it into an abandoned dump. Idriss recalls that when OBB formed to help clean Lebanon’s coastline in 1997, Ramlet el-Baida’s shore and seabed was covered in meters-deep trash that had accumulated during the war.

It was while cleaning up the beach that OBB discovered that sea turtles lived in these waters, laying their eggs in Ramlet el-Baida’s sand. They requested and received permission from the director general of land and maritime transport at the MoPWT, Abdel Hafeez el-Kaissi, to monitor the turtles and make sure they are protected. This led to a good relationship between OBB and the maritime transport division, and so, when the MoPWT put the management of public beaches out to tender in 2001, OBB won the right to manage Ramlet el-Baida.

At the time, explains Idriss, the beach had acquired a reputation as a dangerous place because it was unmonitored and fights regularly broke out on it. The beach was also polluted, and despite OBB’s cleaning efforts, people continued to use it as a dumping ground. To counter this, the first thing OBB did when it took over management was to develop a strategy for running an eco-beach. This strategy took into consideration four main elements: service management, which included all basic services, such as a clean bathroom and shower area and lifeguards on duty; environment management, which ensured the cleanliness of the shore through proper waste management and a plan for sewage treatment; raising awareness among beach users on the importance of protecting the environment, through activities and signage; and statistics and information management, whereby OBB gathered data on beach and water quality. 

With this strategy in hand, OBB took over Ramlet el-Baida, divided it into physical areas to better manage people’s interest in and expectations of a public beach. These divisions remain today, splitting the beach into several different pockets: one for sunbeds that beachgoers can rent for a small fee; one for women who would rather be secluded from other beach goers; one with tables and chairs for rent; and another for free use, to which people can bring their own picnics, tables, and chairs. A final area was due to be designated for argileh and barbecues, to lower the likelihood of beach goers burning their feet on hot coals buried in the sand. The only restrictions OBB enforces are on alcohol and public indecency (suntanning topless or naked), which are both against the law in Lebanon. (Consuming alcohol in public is against the law in Lebanon, according to lawyers Executive spoke to, though this law seems to be enforced only rarely).

Photo by: Greg Demarque/Executive

Managing such an operation requires a budget for annual maintenance and the setting up of tents, lifeguard posts, and other equipment, as well as the means to finance the salaries of the 60 employees who work on the beach (lifeguards, security guards, and others). The ministry does not have a budget to support Ramlet el-Baida public beach, says Idriss, and OBB thus covers its expenses by selling snacks and water at the kiosk on the beach as well as  renting out sunbeds, chairs, and tables. The organization also relies on various kinds of donations, for example furniture, which they revamp and use to beautify the beach as much as possible.

While OBB has good intentions, it is working with limited  available resources and a tight budget since the MoWT does not have the financial means to support it. It does not help that the beach water is polluted with unregulated sewage disposal, according to multiple sources. And yet, approximately 2,000 people still access Ramlet el-Baida on a busy day, according to Idriss, swimming in the sea in spite of multiple warnings about the poor quality of the water.

Anfeh

Anfeh’s public beach, Tahet el-Rih, got its name due to its  protection from the wind. A rocky beach known for the blue and white walls of the structures around it (the result of a joint agreement between the municipality and the owners, struck more than a decade ago), Tahet el-Rih is reminiscent of Greek coastal villages.

Prior to the Lebanese civil war, according to Anfeh municipality lawyer Kamel Anjoul, some  residents acquired permits from the public works ministry to develop salt mines along Tahet el-Rih, as Anfeh was then known for salt mining. During the war years, salt mining was no longer a lucrative business and so many of these people converted their salt mines into small chalets for personal use.

In 2014, says Anjoul, some of these people remodeled their chalets again, this time into small restaurants to cater to those who were accessing the public beach. At the same time, he says, Anfeh’s seawater was gaining a reputation for being among the cleanest in Lebanon. This came just in time for Lebanon’s garbage crisis, when beach lovers were desperately seeking unpolluted beaches in which to dip their toes. Anfeh’s reputation drew in more visitors, encouraging more chalet owners to convert their chalets into restaurants, which, in turn, drew in more visitors. Anfeh’s popularity was also aided by social media, as user-generated photos of scenic blue and white houses by the sea inspired more visits.

Anfeh’s public beach today boasts around a dozen restaurants and snack shops, and attracts around 400 people per venue on a busy day, Anjoul says. This means that, on such a day, close to 5000 people might visit Tahet el-Rih—placing a lot of strain on waste management. When the chalets were for private use, their sewage went directly into the sea, but at low volume, since chalet owners tended to only use these properties during the day. But with the development of Tahet el-Rih as a tourist destination, this system was no longer feasible. Restaurants also generate more solid waste than a private chalet, and some of them were throwing this waste into the sea. The municipality had to intervene, Anjoul says. “The municipality mandated that the chalet-turned-restaurant owners develop a sewage network specifically for Tahet el-Rih, and this is what happened.” The sewage is now directed into a big tank that is drained daily, Anjoul says, with the system paid for by the owners and facilitated by the municipality.  “If the beach is no longer clean, we will lose the attraction which drew in the tourists to Anfeh in the first place,” he says.

Photo by: Greg Demarque/Executive

Tahet el-Rih’s restaurants are a tourist attraction that has the potential to bring heightened economic benefit to Anfeh over time, especially as the municipality is working on several projects to attract other forms of tourism to the area. “A lot is being done to develop tourism in Anfeh, but we need funding for that, and we are trying to secure that from NGOs,” Anjoul explains. “But it takes time to prepare the needed documents and studies for such funding. We want to provide more for tourists to do when they come to Anfeh than just go to the beach for lunch and then go home. … If we are able to develop [it] in the way we want and have people spend a longer time in Anfeh, it will have a good impact on the economy overall.”

But one cannot escape the fact that these restaurants, despite their attractiveness and economic value, are in violation of the law, because they are built on a public beach. The municipality is aware of the sensitivity of this issue. Anjoul explains, “The current municipality is looking at the situation from a pragmatic perspective, saying that it is something that has already happened and so should be dealt with from that starting point, without looking at the past. So from now on, no one is allowed to build anything on the public beach. The municipality’s main goal is to protect the environment and ruins of Anfeh, while trying to manage the existing situation and make the best out of it.”

Sour

Sour’s beach was decreed a natural reserve in 1998 by the public works ministry, through Law 708/98, and officially named Tyre Coast Nature Reserve. The reserve is 3.5 kilometers long—from Rest House Tyr to the Ras el-Ain area—and stretches over an expanse of 3,300,000 square meters, making it the widest shore on Lebanon’s coast. It is managed by the Tyre Coast Nature Reserve Committee, which is made up of different ministerial representatives and a representative from the municipality, who is typically made head of the committee. The committee is  supervised by the Ministry of Environment (MoE), since the beach is part of a natural reserve.

The reserve is divided into three sections, one of which is for agriculture and is located next to Ras el-Ain. The second section is designated as a sanctuary for sea turtles, fauna, and migrating birds, since it contains “wetlands of international importance,” as per the 1971 Convention on Wetlands. The third section is the public beach, which is 900 meters long. Every year, the Municipality of Sour submits a request to the MoE for a permit to manage that section of the reserve as a public beach for the summer season (May 15 – October 15), though at this point this has become more of a formality, explains Hassan Dbouk, the head of the Union of Tyre Municipalities. 

During the summer season, a 150 meter long stretch of the public beach contains 49 tents situated at a distance from the waves,  serving food and drinks to beachgoers. Those who sit under the tents or use the chairs provided by these establishments must pay for what they consume—some tents have a minimum consumption charge—and those who prefer not to pay can sit closer to the sea or in another section of the public beach, where they can use their own beach equipment and enjoy a picnic.

Photo by: Greg Demarque/Executive

Every year, permission to set up tents is granted to the same 49 individuals who have run these tents since 2001, says Dbouk. While he wishes they could open the area to newcomers, he claims that this is not possible under the current system. A big tent rents for $660 per month while the smaller ones cost close to $580. Aside from renting out the tents, the municipality also makes money from the beach via parking lot fees, which are set at $2 a day. Dbouk says 45 percent of the total revenue goes to the Tyre Coast Nature Reserve Committee and the rest is used by the municipality to cover their expenses, including maintenance and supervisory work.

At the start of every season, the municipality levels the sand on the public beach and removes the accumulated waste. They then check the infrastructure, which includes running water and the sewage system—the municipality has developed a sanitation network with two small pumping stations for the tented area only. The municipality also supervises the tents to make sure there are no violations to the rights of the public (infringing on the area designated for free public use) and that basic appearances and safety standards are met (clean kitchens and no broken furniture, for example). Finally, the municipality, in cooperation with the public works ministry, ensures the presence of lifeguards and other staff, while the Red Cross has a tent on the beach to treat any injuries.

While Sour’s public beach was always an attraction—the tents have existed in one form or another since the 1970s, says Dbouk—the past five years have seen a significant increase in the number of visitors, reaching up to 20,000 on a busy day (usually on Sundays and they have around ten such days per season). Dbouk says the beach could host even more, if its capacity were increased by adding a small section of the protected area to it—something he is against. He believes this growing popularity is due to Sour’s reputation for clean sea water and its proper management. It is a place, he says, where people can enjoy a day on a free beach without feeling they have compromised their standards of comfort and services.

This influx of visitors has become a bit of a challenge, explains Dbouk, although the municipalities union is happy with the boost to Sour’s economy from the visitors. Still, managing waste on the public beach has become more difficult, and this year the municipality plans to add additional bins in an effort to control this. Controlling the wildlife sanctuary area of what is, after all, a natural reserve, is also starting to become difficult, since the volume of visitors means that the protected area is sometimes encroached upon by wandering beachgoers. Dbouk plans to raise this issue with the reserve’s committee to reach a satisfactory solution for all parties.

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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