Lebanon has a longstanding reputation as the top winter sports destination in the region. With four major ski resorts in the country, each offering a unique experience, it is easy for both local and foreign winter activities enthusiasts to find what suits their tastes.
The ghost of winter 2013–2014
With such a reputation to uphold, it is no wonder that last year’s dry winter — which saw only 219 millimeters of rainfall from the beginning of the year until the end of March, 72 percent less than the yearly average for Beirut — came as a surprise to the country’s ski operators. “We carried out all the preseason preparations such as running maintenance checks on our ski equipment, buying the mazout [heavy fuel oil] for our generators and hiring the seasons’ employees; we didn’t expect it would be such a dry year … it was really exceptional and a financial loss for us,” says Nicole Wakim, marketing and development manager at Mzaar Ski Resort, the company which operates in the Mzaar Kfardebian area.
This financial loss was also felt by owners of the ski rental shops and restaurants dotting the roads leading to the ski resorts. According to a sales clerk at Mike Sports’ Feytroun branch, although their store was open the whole season, they only sold or rented ski equipment for a few days when the lower slopes were open. “This certainly led to an economic loss because employees’ salaries still had to be paid, and also because the wealthy Lebanese don’t usually like to buy from the old collection, so it has pretty much gone to waste,” she says.
[pullquote]Zaarour Club ski resort reopened in 2015, becoming the closest resort to the capital[/pullquote]
Winter 2013–2014 raised fears among ski operators, and the businesses reliant on them, that Lebanon’s climate was becoming dryer, which in turn affected how they approached the season this year. “Save for Zaarour Club [which was relaunched this winter], no big investment was made in the resorts this year as they were all cautious, [afraid] that this season would be the same as last year’s or be late. They did not start spending on renovations until it started snowing in December,” says Ronald Sayegh, Founder and CEO of Skileb, an online booking website for ski vacations in Lebanon.
Too much of a good thing
This season’s storms helped quell some fears that more dry winters would feature in Lebanon’s future, and caused hundreds of Lebanese who had missed the previous winter’s skiing to rush to the slopes when the first snowflakes fell in January 2015.
Yet some of the ski resort operators and businesses Executive spoke to say that while this season has picked up, its late start and excessive snowstorms make it compare poorly to the previous five years. “Ideally, the ski season starts around Christmas, but this year the snowfall was late and we opened the slopes on January 10. Also, we had 10 days in February when we had heavy storms and had to close until they subsided, in addition to the nonoperational days needed to prepare the slopes for skiing after the storms, which are also considered a loss,” says Mzaar’s Wakim, explaining that what is important for ski resort operators is for the weather to remain cold for a long time in order for the snow not to melt. With the weather already heating up in mid March, she does not expect the season to last longer than early April.
Despite this, Wakim says Mzaar Ski Resort’s slopes were busy this season, with more people on the weekend but also with many people choosing to ski on weekdays when it is less expensive and also less busy.
Elie Fakhry, co-owner of Téléskis des Cèdres, which operates the ski resort in the Cedars, says that this was the best year among the last five for skiing conditions. He explains that due to the area’s high altitude the snow was of extremely good quality and remained in better condition longer than at other resorts, prolonging their ski season.
Laklouk Village Vacances, the ski resort located in Laklouk village (just below Imhij) also had a good season, with Nour Saab, the resort’s manager, saying it was “three times better” than any of the past few years. This success has been supported by weeklong school organized ski trips. “It is mainly the Lycée schools which organize such trips at our resort because they find it convenient that we provide a complete package with ski equipment, instructors, meals and lodgings in our hotel, which is walking distance from the slopes,” says Saab.
Despite being only in their first phase of development, Carol El Murr, CEO of Zaarour Club, said that their first season of operation has “exceeded their expectations” with the number of skiers alone reaching up to 2,000 at times during the weekend, judging by ticket sales.
Who led the ski season?
While a good ski season can attract a significant number of tourists or expats living in the region to Lebanon, this year it was mostly those residing in Lebanon who filled up the slopes, according to Skileb’s Sayegh. “The Lebanese were the ones that energized the season this year, especially since there was no snow last year. But the Lebanese only go up on weekends, if not only for the day, and cannot be compared to the tourists who stay a week in a chalet or a hotel in terms of spending power,” says Sayegh, adding that this year, using the bookings for ski vacations on Skileb as reference, there was less than half the number of ski tourists that Lebanon usually gets in the winter.
According to Joost Komen, general manager of the InterContinental Mzaar Mountain Resort & Spa, only 30 percent of the hotel’s guests this season were tourists, mainly Lebanese or European expats working in the Gulf region, while the rest were local guests. Although declining to give the actual percentage of room occupancy, Komen says that this year’s overall occupancy is in line with previous “good snow” years.
Saab says that 20 percent of the skiers in Laklouk Village Vacances were European tourists. “They are attracted to the resort because some of our ski instructors speak Russian or German and they feel at ease communicating with them,” she explains.
Sayegh blames the ongoing unstable security situation in the region for what he calls this season’s lackluster performance when it comes to tourist numbers, recalling a year when the resorts opened for a shorter period than this year — from late January to mid March only — and still performed better than they did this season because, he says, the country was relatively better off politically.
The not so new kid on the block
Following last year’s slump, the ski resort operators and surrounding businesses were only too happy to welcome local residents, marketing and promoting their distinguishing advantages to lure them to their resort over others.
Zaarour Club opened this season, following a $40 million first phase of renovation and reconstruction, after Gabriel El Murr’s family took over operations about three years ago, says Carol El Murr. “We transformed it from a somehow neglected private club into a modern public ski resort,” she adds.
Skiing wise, part of their investment involved the widening of the slopes and the introduction of the latest equipment, including four modern chairlifts, two ‘magic carpets’ (conveyor belts that beginners merely stand on to be transported to the top of the slopes), a tubing area for those who don’t want to ski and snowmaking machines to help fill in the patches of rock, should the snow start to melt. The first phase also included the construction of a modern ski station with escalators to take the skiers to the slopes.
According to Murr, having such high end and fresh facilities is a distinguishing factor which drew a lot of visitors to their resort. Other such factors, outlines Murr, are their proximity to Beirut — Zaarour is a mere 35 kilometers away from the capital — ensuring visitors won’t spend a big chunk of their day on the road, as well as the convenience of their resort, with ample parking space directly facing the station and a locker area for skiers’ belongings.
The importance of après-ski activities
What may be Zaarour’s biggest drawback, until it is fully open, is that despite boasting well known eateries such as Classic Burger and Shawarmanji in its food court — and despite plans to launch a newly constructed boutique hotel on its premises by the summer — the surrounding area is still largely underdeveloped. Skiers who want to spend the weekend there have few choices when it comes to après-ski activities or even lodgings.
[pullquote]Complementary businesses are vital for both tourists and locals[/pullquote]
Murr is confident that such businesses will develop over time. “We are still at the soft opening phase as a resort and cannot be compared to others in terms of complementary businesses such as hotels and food and beverage outlets, especially since the area itself has been largely neglected since the 1990s, whereas other ski resort areas were in continuous development. Slowly, with the success of this resort, more such places will be established,” says Murr, adding that they had to include ski rental stores in their resort because there were close to none on the road to Zaarour when they first opened.
Such complementary businesses are vital for both tourists and locals who want more than just physical activity in their stay at the resorts. For those, Mzaar, Lebanon’s largest ski resort with 13 ski lifts and 80 kilometers of ski runs, remains the most popular destination. “The majority of the ski resort packages we sold are for Mzaar because it has many hotels and chalets, and is therefore well equipped to welcome tourists,” says Sayegh.
Wakim explains that the resort, which also owns the InterContinental Mzaar hotel, plans special après-ski events for almost every weekend of the ski season, ranging from extreme ski and jumping competitions to nighttime skiing and fireworks, as well as a lingerie fashion show. “The aim of all these events is to have constant activity in the resort and to create dynamism in the area, beyond just skiing for the people who are staying there for the weekend. People come to these events and the hotels are busy because of that,” says Wakim, adding that in her opinion, the Mzaar resort and hotel are what brings visibility to all businesses in the Kfardebian area during winter.
The manager on duty at Le Montagnou, a well known French restaurant in Faraya, says they were already fully booked for all weekends in February starting from the beginning of the month and had high footfall even on weekdays.
What’s in a buck?
With all the gear that has to be brought or rented beforehand, and with the typical cost of weekend day passes reaching up to $60 in Mzaar, skiing is an expensive sport. The Lebanese were feeling its toll this year and ski equipment outlets said they were frequently asked, especially by those in their early 20s, if they rent out ski clothes instead of selling them.
Saab believes that Laklouk Village Vacances’ competitive advantage over other resorts is their lower prices, with a weekend full day pass costing $23 and a weekday one costing $16. Saab also says that the food and beverage options in the resort’s restaurants are reasonably priced — a cheese manoushe goes for LBP 3,000 ($2), for instance.
When the snow doesn’t fall
Despite the relative success of this season, ski resort operators are not about to forget last year’s almost snowless experience, and have developed contingency plans should similar conditions be repeated.
Part of Mzaar’s plans before the next winter season is to widen their upper level slopes at an altitude of 2,200 meters to ensure a sustainable domain in case it does not snow on the lower levels, says Wakim. She explains that the snow did reach that height in the winter of 2013–2014, but skiers could not access the upper area.
The most viable contingency plan for all ski resorts remains diversifying their activities to become year round destinations for tourists and locals alike.
At Zaarour, the Murr family had that goal in mind from the beginning — planning a lake with a promenade surrounding it, swimming pools, sports courts and a spa. “I feel the summer will be even better for us because the winter is short but, from April onward, we have lovely weather here which people will want to come and enjoy as an escape from the heat in Beirut,” says Murr.
With its historic and natural attractions, the Cedars is not ski dependent and has no problem attracting tourists for weekend stays in the summer, explains Sayegh, saying that they sell many such weekend packages for tourists on their other booking sites.
Mzaar has become a favorite spot during the month of August, when the Feast of the Assumption is celebrated in an almost month long festival of activities and events in the area, but remains rather calm during the summer otherwise. “Mzaar sees summer activity in mid August but that is largely driven by locals. Tourists will not come spend their summer vacation at a ski resort but would go for one day excursions,” says Sayegh.
Yet Wakim says they are working on diversifying their activities that take place on the slopes to create dynamism in July and September as well. “We can no longer depend only on winter,” she says.
Laklouk Village Vacances has long relied on the summer season to complement its winter operations and hosts Camp Rage, an outdoor activities children’s summer camp which runs for two weeks straight, according to Saab. The resort also has about 15 outdoor summer activities which attracts a lot of families, says Saab.
Whether in the summer or winter, getting some fresh air and escaping the busy city to the mountains is something most Lebanese and tourists enjoy. Resort operators and complementary businesses would do well to keep that in mind and design activities and packages that keep people coming back.