Northeast of Beirut and far from the coast’s cloud of persistant pollution lays the village of Kfardebian. The village’s 40 square kilometer boundary, of which the most well known areas are Ouyoun Es-Siman and Faqra, extends from 600 meters above sea level to reach 2,800 meters in altitude, in the Kessrwan district of Mount Lebanon.
A renowned tourist destination, Kfardebian is particularly popular in the winter season, when both locals and tourists partake in winter sports on its snow-covered hills.
The tourism activity in Kfardebian has attracted significant real estate investment over the last few years, in chalets, hotels and restaurants. While the Ouyoun Es-Siman area has become overcrowded with developments, making land less available, developers are now turning their attention to the quieter Faqra.
“If we are talking about Faqra and excluding Faqra Club, it is still empty,” said Nadi Nammar, managing partner at MR Group, architects of soon-to-be-built mountain resort Les Dunes de Fakra.
Bassam Salameh, vice president of the Kfardebian municipality, explained that the real estate activity in Faqra was formerly concentrated within Faqra Club — a gated community, which was created in 1976 — but in the last few years, new investment and developments appeared in areas adjacent to the club such as the Tilal Faqra, Oakridge, Les Dunes de Fakra, Ahlam and others.
“Activity in the [Faqra] area during last year was crazy,” said Salameh.
All of these developments are high-end mountain resorts comprising small and big chalets, with or without gardens, spas, swimming pools and different amenities.
Karim Bassil, chairman of Byblos Real Estate Investment (BREI) — developers of Edelweiss, a small aprés ski village in the heart of Faqra Club — thinks that the spike in demand for Faqra property goes back to the 2006 war.
“The war made people realize that in Lebanon, no matter what, we are in a risky environment and in case something happens, [Faqra] could be a safe second home,” he said. “All of them are Lebanese families.”
Skiing season and demand
Until mid-January, Kfardebian was still waiting for the winter storms that usually cover the area with snow much earlier in the season. Wael Hmaidan, executive director of environmental campaign group IndyAct, told Executive in December that Lebanon’s longer summer season is one of the consequences of global warming and the country is threatened by severe desertification in the future. ?But real estate experts are at odds as to whether the shortening of the winter season, already seen this year, is impeding the area’s growth.
“It has affected us a little bit because if the snow season is delayed, our selling season is delayed, since this is the time when we sell,” said David Mansour, developer of Tilal Faqra, adjacent to Faqra Club. “If [people] don’t see the snow they don’t come up to the area, and if they don’t come they don’t buy.”
Salameh agreed, saying: “People are not motivated to come and stay in their chalets [if] there is no snow.”
But others believe that Faqra, in particular, is more of a summer attraction, since buyers in the area are looking more at investing in gated mountain resorts than the nearby ski slopes in Ouyoun Es-siman.
“I think people prefer summer over winter because in summer, you can spend two whole months but in winter you only go up for a weekend,” said Bassil.
For the same reason, Carlos Chad, sales manager at Faqra Club said, “I think that the strength of Faqra today is in summer rather than winter.” However, he said the changing weather could affect the area.
“In my opinion, in 10 years, it will be a summer place if [the weather] continues like this,” said Chad.
With the change in weather in mind, the club is working on a grass slope to allow for summer skiing.
Chad explained that Faqra Club owns some 80 percent of the land available for sale; the price is currently at $1,300 per square meter, compared to $250 in 2003, and set to rise.
“I’m sure we will reach $2,000 by the start of the summer,” he said.
Several years ago, Bassil bought land in the center of Faqra Club for $400 per square meter, which is now worth around $1,500.
The remaining 20 percent not owned by Faqra Club are also expected to command sky-high prices.
“There was an offer at $1,700 [per square meter] and the owner of the land refused because he thinks it is worth more,” said Chad.
Land scarcity is inflating prices: of the 900 plots within Faqra Club’s boundaries, only 45 are currently offered for sale. Outside the club, prices have not reached the same level, but are rising due to the increasing attractiveness of the area. “In 2006, the price per square meter of land was $100 or $150,” said Mansour. “Now it is $600 to $700.”
MR Group’s Nammar said, “Where we are building Les Dunes, it was very cheap; but not anymore. Five years ago, you could have bought land for $90 per square meter, now you cannot find [any] below $250,” he said.
Prices of built-up areas follow the same pattern, with the average price per square meter in Faqra between $3,500 and $4,000, compared to $1,500 three years ago, said Salameh. Within the club, prices may rise to $8,000 per square meter for built-up areas, depending on the developer and the design, said Chad.
Another price inflator is the fact that building in Faqra costs more than in coastal areas. The cost of both labor and material is higher because of its remote location, which increases transportation fees.
“The same chalet in Faqra costs some 15 percent more [than in Beirut],” said Mansour.
Profits are further dented by the increasing prices of land, coupled with rules which forbid developers to build high-rise buildings or construct on more than 25 percent of the plot.
Chad said that the expense factor has made it unfeasible for developers to build in Faqra Club anymore.
“Edelweiss would have not happened if the land wasn’t bought four years ago,” he said.
Another challenge of building in the area is the harsh winter season, during which construction halts.
“You can barely work seven months per year,” said Mansour.
Even though Faqra Club has its own infrastructure, developers who build outside the club have to bring their own power and water supplies, build their own sewage system and repair the roads. The fact that Kfardebian covers 40 square kilometers does not make it easy for the municipality to supply a comprehensive infrastructure for the whole area.
“If a developer wants to build in the area, he [has to] do everything by himself,” said Tilal Faqra’s Mansour.
“The road that leads to our project was only three meters wide, but there was a plan by the municipality to enlarge it to 12 meters and we helped,” said Nammar.
Municipality chief Salameh said that while Faqra’s infrastructure was costly and a significant problem for developers, the municipality has plans, backed by construction permit revenues, to collaborate with developers and enhance the area’s amenities.
Demand outgrowing supply
Whether the winter season gets shorter or not, investing in Faqra seems to be a promising deal and developers in the area anticipate a further increase in both demand and prices over the next few years.
“I think that the demand in the next two to three years [will be] much more than all the supply combined,” said Mansour.
“According to what is happening now, I expect that the prices in the area will double or triple in the next two to three years,” said Salameh, adding that if the Kfardebian municipality can operate well, it could compete with the most important skiing destinations in the world.