It is a depressing sight: closed shops, empty restaurants, and abandoned hotels. Bhamdoun’s main street, once the glittering gem of Lebanon’s golden age, betrays nothing of its polished upscale past. Today, the mountain town’s disheveled appearance, with its dug up main road and abandoned buildings, seems to be conspiring to keep the tourists away. Local business owners admit that a rethink of business strategy is in order. Some believe that the town should focus on attracting more year-round local tourists, rather than waiting for a return in force of Gulf Arab tourists that has not yet materialized.
Bhamdoun is just 20-minutes by car from Beirut, a steep climb that brings you 1,200 meters above sea level. Its cool and dry summer climate, easy access, and proximity to the capital made it a popular summer destination for many coastal dwellers. In fact, before the 1975-90 civil war, the town was famous for its luxury hotels and lavish summer homes built by some of Beirut’s wealthiest families. Summering Kuwaitis rapidly adopted it as their home away from home, buying up property, and even naming hotels after localities in Kuwait.
The golden age of Bhamdoun ended with the start of the civil war in Lebanon and the 1983 mountain battles. Memories of those dark days are still fresh in local minds. “There are as few as 100 Bhamdounis who live up here all year round, I’m one of them,” says hotelier Karam Abou Rjeily. “Many people emigrated abroad and never returned, many more live in Beirut and rarely come up here,” he says. Among the few to return to their native village in the 1990s was Naji Boutros, owner of Bellevue Winery and Boutique Hotel, and Le Telegraphe restaurant in Bhamdoun. An investment banker by profession, Boutros came to Lebanon alongside his American wife Jill with the idea of turning Bhamdoun into Mount Lebanon’s own version of Napa Valley. He began planting his grandfather’s land with grapevines in the mid-1990s. “Today, we have 240,000 square meters of land planted with vines that produce 25,000 bottles of wine per year,” he says. By 2003, Chateau Bellevue’s first vintage won the International Spirits and Wine Competition’s Gold Medal Best in Class award. It turns out that the same weather conditions that long attracted tourists to Bhamdoun also help grow some of the most intensely flavored grapes, excellent for producing exceptional wines.
“Before the war, Bhamdoun was more important than Beirut, it had 5,000 hotel rooms, and accounted for 60 percent of the country’s tourism GDP,” Boutros says.
The big hotels are still there, all 52 of them, marshalled along a strip of highway in Bhamdoun Mahata, a separate municipal district from Bhamdoun village, built around the old train station or mahata in Arabic. The main thoroughfare was once a vibrant commercial and tourist hub. Today, most of the hotels lie abandoned, neglected, and unrestored, others were rebuilt and refurbished only to be closed back up due to the low visitor numbers that did not justify the high cost of keeping them up and running. Abou Rjeily says that only five hotels, including his own, remain open for business in the town. Most of the hotels that are still operating are owned by Gulf Arabs, who could afford to renovate; many Lebanese hotel owners migrated abroad. “The problem is that any investor would end up paying out millions to restore a hotel, only to operate for, at most, one season a year in the summer,” he says. Nadim Moujaes, an active member of Bhamdoun village’s municipal council, says that since the war in Syria began, tourism has suffered greatly in Bhamdoun, since most of its tourists came overland through Syria from Arab countries, such as Iraq, Jordan, Kuwait, and Saudi Arabia. “When the Gulf countries warned their citizens against traveling to Lebanon, that further impacted tourism. We do get some Europeans coming these days, but they are not high-income earners,” Moujaes says. He adds that while Lebanese expats are coming to Bhamdoun in larger numbers, they often own their own homes and do not benefit the hotel businesses in town.
Moujaes claims that the government is not doing enough to improve roads and tourism infrastructure in Bhamdoun. “The road, which was built 150 years ago, and which links Beirut to Damascus and the wider Arab region, was once a blessing for us. Today, in its present condition, it’s a curse,” the municipal council member says. The admittedly dangerous, winding road that goes up to Aley and Bhamdoun is often plagued by heavy trucks driven recklessly, making the ride up an unpleasant one at best. Moujaes says that the tunnel built at the upper approaches to Bhamdoun Mahata has been under construction for seven years, and has yet to be completed. In fact, the road surface around the tunnel was being dug up when Executive visited the town.
Boutros says that the government made many mistakes in the area; the first dates back to the 1950s, when all the hotels in Bhamdoun and Sawfar lost their gambling licenses as the-then government concentrated all gaming activities at Casino du Liban. “This reduced hotels’ incomes to just a three-month summer period,” he says. The other mistake was the construction of the so-called Arab Highway that passes above and is clearly visible from the neighboring village of Sawfar and its once iconic Grand Hotel; today the hotel remains an abandoned shell. “No one wants the view or noise of a highway from their summer resort. People come here to leave the noise of the city behind, all they want to hear is the sound of a rooster crowing in the morning,” says Boutros.
According to Moujaes, the municipality in Bhamdoun village has done a lot with its limited resources, planting 500 trees this year, installing street lighting where there was none, refurbishing the local spring, and improving water distribution. “There can be no tourism without investment, and to get investment you need to give investors stability and security. In Lebanon, by contrast, we have a shock every four to five years,” Moujaes says. He added that despite multiple political assassinations, and a war in 2006, the years 2004 to 2008 were still better in terms of tourist numbers than the last few years have been. Since the start of the Syrian conflict, the mood has turned very tense in the town due to political divisions in the country. “Bhamdoun is a mixed area in sectarian terms, we feel strong and confident when the central government is strong, and we feel weak and unsure when the central government is weak,” he says.
Glimmer of hope
Despite the bleak overview, the outlook for the future seems promising. Abou Rjeily notes that this season saw a 10 to 15 percent improvement in business compared to the last few years when Gulf visitor numbers slowed to a trickle as the overland route was closed. “We still get visitors from Kuwait, but now we focus mostly on Lebanese expats who have the purchasing power visiting over the weekend,” he says. The Carlton Hotel currently operates 50 rooms, and Abou Rjeily also owns a popular Italian eatery, Olivo, on the hotel’s ground floor. “Our occupancy rate remains low, 25 percent, at most 30 percent on weekends. Our restaurant is actually sustaining the hotel when usually it should be the other way around,” he says. Despite the current slump, some new properties have emerged and are doing brisk business. Safat Suites hotel apartments, a three-building complex completed in 2011 just as the war in Syria heated up, is one such property. A Kuwaiti group owns the establishment, but a team from the Riviera Hotel in Beirut runs it. Elie Kassouf, operations manager at the Riviera Hotel and general manager of Safat Suites, opened one of the hotel’s three buildings for business this year — 32 apartments out of a total of 90 — he also decided to cut costs down to the bone and lower prices. The plan worked, and today he boasts a 98 percent occupancy rate. “Last month [July] we had a lot of well-to-do Syrians staying, this month [August], we have mostly Kuwaitis and Saudis,” Kassouf says.
This is the first year they have opened for business since construction on the hotel was completed in 2011, and the response has been encouraging. “We realized that we couldn’t charge high prices any more, a hotel room for around $250 wasn’t going to work, so we decided to reduce costs, not offer breakfast or valet service, and instead, offer hotel apartments at affordable rates,” Kassouf said. A two-bedroom apartment at Safat Suites goes for as little as $120 a night. Only their largest suite is priced at $250 a night, and that includes a private jacuzzi. The hotel also offers a gym and children’s play area, and Kassouf supplements the hotel’s income by renting out street level space to three eateries. Lebanese expats are coming to Bhamdoun in larger numbers these days, Moujaes says. “They are often more aware of the real political and security situation than foreign tourists are. Lebanon is also getting a lot of positive press internationally, we have one the highest number of summer festivals per square kilometer anywhere in the world.”
Prescription for success
Bhamdoun’s main thoroughfare, however, remains depressingly empty. Shops and restaurants are shuttered, and pedestrian traffic is virtually non-existent. Boutros says the problem is that too many people are resting on their pre-war laurels and not looking to move forward and support infrastructure improvements to allow businesses to return and flourish. “Bhamdoun Mahata will recover only if a strategic vision is put together and the area reinvents itself from a [Gulf] Arab destination to a total quality environment suburb of Beirut that is not just a summer resort,” Boutros says. He advises hotel owners to repurpose their closed hotels into student dorms or nursing homes. Bhamdoun Mahata could easily be transformed into a university or healthcare city, he adds.
Abou Rjeily says that for Bhamdoun to attract year-round local tourists, time and money have to be invested in ecotourism. “We need to give people activities to do when they come up here, we can’t expect them to just sit in the hotel all day. We need activities for kids, hiking, all-terrain vehicles; we need promotional campaigns through the news media and on Facebook … Today, we rely on Gulf visitors, but what if they stop coming, what do we do then?” Boutros agrees that for Bhamdoun village encouraging and developing ecotourism activities is its best bet for a brighter future. He feels that his winery, restaurant, and boutique hotel are the seeds of a growing trend. “You need to attract tourists that will spend money on environmental-based products, whether it’s wine or local cheeses or even hiking,” Boutros says, adding that sustainable tourism can only be based around an area’s natural beauty and natural products, supporting the local population.
Boutros bought the former residence of the French Ambassador to Iraq and Iran from the French government, and transformed it into a boutique hotel. Its neatly kept lawns and topiaries and red tiled roof stands in stark contrast to the many still abandoned, burned out and half demolished homes in Bhamdoun. It is a reminder that the town still has a long way to go to heal old wounds and return to its pre-war glory days.