For most people, Lebanon is synonymous with shopping and partying galore. However, its Mediterranean atmosphere offers a wide variety of handsome landscapes — unusual when compared to neighboring countries where sandy dunes and rocky deserts abound. Many Lebanese would be amazed by the variety of nature reserves Lebanon boasts. The Chouf Cedar Nature Reserve, nestled between Dahr al Baidar and Niha in the South, is covered with oak forests. There lay the oldest Lebanese forests of Maasar Chouf, Barouk and Ain Zhalta, where cedar trees, Lebanon’s national symbol, grow on the western slopes of the mountain. The reserve is also a prime destination for bird watchers. In the north, the Horsh Ehden Nature Reserve, situated on the upper northwestern slopes of Mount Lebanon, is home to cedar trees bordered by a mixed forest, including acorn, pine, wild plum and pear. The Palm Islands Nature Reserve lies off northern Lebanon’s shore, consisting of three islands where birds and turtles come to lay their eggs.
These are only a few examples of Lebanon’s many ecotourism sites, to which most Lebanese remain oblivious. “There is not enough awareness in the local community about the benefits of ecotourism,” said Sawsan Abou Fakhredine, director of the Association for Forests, Development and Conservation (AFDC). The organization, which was established in 1993, aims at community-based conservation for sustainable livelihood of people through rural and ecotourism. The association first identifies an area and then trains a group who will be responsible for it. By the end of 2009 it will have established as many as four eco- lodges in the north, the Chouf and the Metn. For Michel Moufarej, owner of LibanTrek, a tour operator which specializes in ecotourism, the business is more of a passion than a job. “Awareness towards ecotourism activities is slowly improving but very much behind its full potential,” he said.
For the past 12 years Cyclamen, a division of TLB Destinations focusing on sustainable tourism in Lebanon’s rural regions, has invited travelers from all over the world to experience and discover Lebanon’s diversity, unique culture, history and natural beauty. It has developed trips emphasizing the local community by organizing home stays or sharing simple meals with villagers. TLB’s concept is known today as ‘sustainable tourism’, meaning daily operations should be responsible and contribute positively to the sustainable development of Lebanon. For example, TLB Destinations offers financial resources to initiatives, such as rural women’s cooperatives, and promotes tours to support projects to avoid emigration from rural regions.
“Travelers are always encouraged to purchase food locally rather than bringing a picnic with them. We make sure that our visit has benefited the rural communities. What is the point of just arriving by bus, hiking and then going back home again? How will we have benefited the rural communities?” said Nassim Yaacoub, program manager at Cyclamen.
“In order to develop ecotourism activities, one needs a physical infrastructure. This type of activity generates resources for rural areas, while preserving nature,” Abou Fakhredine added. The director explained that the sector suffers from the limited marketing it receives when this activity strongly needs to be reinforced. The Lebanon Mountain Trail (LMT) was financed by USAID and falls in the ecotourism segment of activity. The LMT is a 440 kilometer path that leads from the northern tip of Lebanon to the southern part of the country and goes through more than 75 towns and villages. It promotes environmentally and socially responsible tourism and is the first long distance hiking trail in Lebanon.
“Unfortunately, tourists who visit Lebanon are rarely familiar or interested in the concept of ecotourism, as they prefer to shop or go out to cafés and restaurants,” Abou Fakhredine said.
The director said the best year AFDC witnessed at their first lodge, situated in the village of Ramlieh in the Chouf, was 2004 when it received 4,000 visitors of which about 20% were foreigners. At Cyclamen, most clients are equally divided between Lebanese and foreign nationals.
“In this type of business, companies can adopt one of two approaches: either focusing on Europeans or Americans, who are usually interested in ecotourism activities, or creating awareness among the local population. We have decided to try promoting both market segments,” Abou Fakhredine said. He added that the association organizes ecotourism festivals every year.
LibanTrek targets schools, institutions and individuals. “We have about a third of our client base who are foreign,” said Moufarege.
Yaacoub pointed out that his company’s travelers “are made aware of local concerns regarding conservation of natural areas, as well as endangered and threatened heritage. TLB has also founded national days and respects international days with events to raise awareness, such as World Wetland Day, International Women’s Day and International Mountain Day.”
But industry players are not the only ones taking an interest in ecotourism, as they are joined by other Lebanese entrepreneurs. The Saadé brothers, Sandro and Karim, who recently introduced a new wine project to the market, included a boutique hotel in their Bekaa premises. “We need to preserve our heritage and work as well on promoting it actively,” Sandro Saadé said.