Destination: Shouf

From ancient forests to grand palaces

Reading Time: 9 minutes

The verdant Shouf, famous for its unspoiled green vistas, is rapidly evolving into a popular tourist hotspot for Lebanese from across the country, as well as vacationing expatriates, Arab tourists, and even foreign visitors. The area is located southeast of Beirut and comprises many tourist must-sees, from the historic towns of Beiteddine and Deir Al Qamar to the Shouf Biosphere Reserve. The reserve is a designated protected area covering 440 square kilometers, straddling three governorates (Mount Lebanon, the Bekaa, and South Lebanon) and encompassing 22 villages and three ancient cedar forests: Barouk forest, Maasser Al Shouf, and Ain Zhalta. The forests are home to the largest single concentration of cedrus libani in Lebanon, accounting for 25 percent of the remaining cedar forests in the country. Undoubtedly, the reserve is the single biggest tourist attraction in Shouf, but along its periphery are many things to see and do as well. With an increase in visitors and a rise in the number of fully loaded Pullman buses trundling up to the cedar forests on any given Sunday, visitors are seeking places to stay, places to eat, activities to do, and local crafts and artisanal foods to buy. Local businesses, municipalities, and reserve officials are beginning to respond to these tourists’ needs.

Visitor numbers go up

Last year, the reserve registered 85,966 visitors compared to 72,411 in 2015. Visitor numbers have shown a steady increase since 2010 when they are numbered just 58,073, according to the reserve’s latest annual draft report released to Executive. This year, visitor numbers have gone up between 15 to 20 percent, according to Nizar Hani, the general manager of the Shouf Biosphere Reserve. Income from reserve visitors’ entrance fees in 2010 was just LL242.8 million, whereas last year entrance fees totaled LL524.8 million, according to the report. “Most visitors—95 percent—are Lebanese. The rest are foreigners living in Lebanon; we also got some Iraqis visiting this year too,” Hani says. The reserve is also helping promote local businesses by offering visitors discounts at local restaurants. “What few visitors know is that the ticket you buy to enter the reserve entitles you to a 5 to 10 percent discount at selected local restaurants in the area,” he says.

The reserve and local municipalities are doing all they can to help promote the region as a complete package. On weekdays, tickets to enter the reserve are discounted to encourage visitors. “This year we introduced horse-riding in the Ain Zhalta forest. Among the other tourist activities in the area we have hiking and camping, we have snowshoeing in winter, we have the Assaf sculpture museum and the Rachid Nakhle Cultural Center, which commemorates the man who wrote the lyrics to our national anthem,” Hani says. The reserve is a treasure house of unique flora and fauna, including 520 species of plants; it is also a designated Important Bird Area (IBA), and ecotourism area. “The reserve is the southernmost extent of cedrus libani and has 296 species of birds and 32 species of mammals,” Hani says.

[pullquote]The reserve is a treasure house of unique flora and fauna, including 520 species of plants[/pullquote]

Ecotourism investment opportunities

The Shouf Biosphere Reserve represents an important bolster to the ecotourism sector in the Shouf, according to Investment Development Authority of Lebanon’s website, which notes that the reserve provides “opportunities for ecotourism that remain untapped.” According to a 2015 Shouf Biosphere Reserve report, the reserve generates an average of $19 million annually in revenue from a range of activities, from ecological and food production to ecotourism. Tourism alone generates $700,000 annually in and around the reserve, while biomass charcoal production generates up to $1 million annually, honey production generates $450,000, and hydroelectric power generates $1.3 million. Water bottling generates up to $3.3 million, not counting grid water provision, which generates up to $12.2 million in revenue. Hani says that only 10 percent of ecological services at the reserve can be monetized. “While the reserve is the main attraction, many things are needed to help economic growth in the region, like developing and improving quality of ecotourism services,” Hani says. The Shouf is the largest district in Mount Lebanon, it has a population of over 200,000 and a high literacy rate. The district has over 64,000 hectares of permanent agricultural land, 51 percent of which is dedicated to olive-tree plantations, although the mountains are draped in picturesque vineyards, there are only two operating wineries in the Shouf.

Social media driven

The region is getting very social-media savvy when it comes to promoting its attractions. The website promotes the reserve and gives useful information about the region’s flora and fauna and its many tourist offerings. The reserve’s Facebook page almost doubled in followers from just 11,000 in 2010, to 19,300 last year. The Jabalna Festival’s Facebook page is also helping promote and expand the region’s cultural activities. In September, the festival organized the National Dabke Day under the motto “The Dabke Must Go On” at Maasser Al Shouf cedar forest, which had 8,000 people in attendance, according to Hani.

“To attract tourists, we rely on the Authentic Shouf website, which promotes the whole of Shouf. Other than that, we rely on private sector initiatives,” says Elie Nakhle, mayor of the municipality of Barouk-Freidiss. He says that his municipality and others in the region do not have the funds or resources to undertake massive promotional campaigns on their own. Among the entrepreneurs that have embraced social media as a promotional tool is the Moukhtara-based restaurant Shallalat Nabeh Merched. Established in 1965, the eatery is nestled in the shade of the opening of a natural cave, under a rock formation from which a natural spring gushes out. The location attracts summer visitors looking for a cool spot to relax and have a meal. The restaurant began promoting itself online three years ago.

Majed Hussam Eddine, the owner and manager of Shallalat Nabeh Merched, says online promotion helped put the eatery on the map, but that he has not seen any improvement in visitor numbers this year compared to the previous two years. “Several things helped us draw in visitors: our location, the fact that our river in Moukhtara is clean and not polluted, and our proximity to the Shouf Biosphere Reserve. The first thing people visiting the cedar forests ask is where can they eat afterwards,” Hussam Eddine says.

Protecting the ecosystem 

The goal of ecotourism is to maintain the very ecosystem that draws in the tourists. The Barouk mountain gets a lot of snowfall in winter, but many traditional winter sports popular in other parts of the country can damage the precious trees, some of which are over 2,000 years old. “It’s not possible to do skiing here because we are a nature reserve, but we try to do other activities,” says Nakhle. Snowshoeing, for example, is easy to learn and affords visitors the opportunity to see the reserve in its snowy white winter blanket. “Our main objective as a protected area is to protect the reserve,” Hani points out. “Activities like ATVing, for example, aren’t allowed, as such activities would damage the forest. We encourage ecotourist activities: Outside the forest we have campsites and horse-riding, and we arrange activities with the local municipalities.”

Some activities do not require any equipment. “We organize walks through the villages to introduce visitors to the area, its people, and their local products,” Hani says. The Bkerzay Village project, a popular destination in the Shouf,  began life as a pottery studio offering traditional pottery handicrafts and classes for the public. “Initially Bkerzay started in 2009 as an exchange between local people and city dwellers. We started with pottery and wanted it to be self-sustaining, so we got the idea of setting up guest houses, which was becoming a trend,” says Karim Salman, one of the founders of the project. The guest houses were built in a traditional style, designed by the architect Ramzi Salman. The whole project is ecofriendly and green, powered almost entirely by solar energy, and built without cutting down a single tree. “We built around the trees,” Salman says. The guest houses only opened for business in late August, with a grand opening planned for some time in March next year. In addition to pottery, the project has a restaurant, a pool, and will soon open a spa.

In the shadow of a mountain

Each area in the Shouf has its own approach to tourism. Barouk, Hani says, focuses more on traditional tourism, with mostly old-school Lebanese restaurants. “Some local eateries are up to date and use social media to promote themselves; others work in a traditional, classical way and wait for guests to come to them. We help those who can’t do it alone and teach them how to work effectively,” he says.

Barouk mostly gets weekend visitors, according to Nakhle. He notes that the area gets many foreign visitors, mostly Europeans who take nature walks in the forest, while Arab and Lebanese visitors like to sit for a meal at its many eateries. The municipality organizes a festival every July to draw in tourists. “We also have a few hotels operating—four for now­—as well as 20 guesthouses. The hotels we have are small: just 10 to 15 rooms each,” says Nakhle. One of the hotels, located just a few hundred meters from the entrance to the Barouk forest, is the Calmera Hotel and Restaurant, owned by Shawki Mahmoud. The property is barely three years old, but Mahmoud says that the past two years were better than this year. “We used to get Iraqi, Kuwaiti, and Saudi guests, but this year we didn’t. Even expatriate Lebanese didn’t come this year with a few exceptions.” Mahmoud says, hinting at deteriorating political relations with the Gulf had led to the slowdown. Saturdays and Sundays are the busiest for the hotel, which has a total of 16 rooms, eight of them suites, and charges $100 per night for suites and $50 per night for regular rooms. Mahmoud says that in spite of the reduced number of guests they still have 80 percent occupancy. Among the activities visitors can enjoy, in the shadow of Barouk mountain is an amusement park, which this year added an 800-meter-long karting track.

[pullquote]We used to get Iraqi, Kuwaiti, and Saudi guests, but this year we didn’t. Even expatriate Lebanese didn’t come this year with a few exceptions[/pullquote]

Room for improvement 

Businesses and local officials agree that the area needs to work more to offer a better overall experience in terms of their quality of services and food, the range of activities, and the conditions of the roads, if they are to attract the demanding international tourist. “As restaurant and hotel owners, we need to work on ourselves more. Many owners of restaurants in the area haven’t improved their establishments since the days of their fathers,” Mahmoud says. The Shouf Biosphere Reserve management recognizes the need to strengthen partnerships with the private sector and ecotour operators, as well as with the local people in the villages surrounding the reserve. “Not all private sector tourism enterprises have the same quality of services,” Hani admits. “For this reason, we have introduced the quality mark, a checklist of services to examine the quality of raw materials used and workers employed by establishments. We try to build capacity of service providers and encourage services that are part of the local environment.” Hani adds that the quality mark serves the interests of local development and environmental protection, such as consumption of electricity and water.

Seasonality issues

There are several obstacles to attracting year-round visitors to an area as remote as Shouf, namely the harsh winters and poor access by road. “We close one month a year in winter. While we are only 700 meters above sea level and any snow quickly melts, the high season for us is definitely the summer,” says Bkerzay’s Salman. Tourist eateries are also limited by the changing seasons. “We get four to five months that are very bitterly cold, so seasonality is an obstacle for our business,” explains Hussam Eddine. However, he is planning to continue to operate in winter in the future by building heated glass-enclosed areas at Shallalat Nabeh Merched.

For now, however, he still closes in winter, but he continues to pay his staff. “The government has to do more. The power cuts cost us money in generator bills, and every time there is a storm, we lose power,” he says. Bkerzay also plans activities around the year. “We have events like corporate retreats in the spring and fall; we’re planning a New Year’s event as well, and we will probably have an event in March, a grand opening,” Salman says. He adds that the region is on the rise because it is protected and preserved, something municipalities must not lose sight of. “But on the negative side, the quality of food and services is generally lower than elsewhere, and the roads aren’t very good,” he says.

The complete package

Wandering through the area’s thick cedar forests is often described as a spiritual experience. The serenity of the place, the earthy scents wafting on the breeze—especially after the first rains—offer a unique experience. The area includes several hiking trails in the reserve’s cedar forests, and there are also walks through local villages and hiking trails in the many other pine forests in the area, like Horsh Baakline. But the rest of Shouf is just as magical and captivating. The picturesque Moukhtara village, the seat of the Jumblatt family and their magnificent 450-year-old palace, offers green vistas dotted with red tiled roofs reminiscent of southern Italy. The Beiteddine Palace, built in the early 19th century by Emir Bachir Chehab II, is a masterpiece of architecture, with opulently decorated wood-paneled and marble-encased rooms that once communicated the might and wealth of the rulers of Mount Lebanon to their subjects and foreign visitors. It remains a summer residence for the president, and includes many fascinating paintings and portraits. The Marie Baz wax museum in Deir Al Qamar is another must-see, a place where you can come face-to-face with the founding fathers of the republic, and its presidents and prime ministers.

There is a wide range of hotels from the five-star traditional opulence of the Mir Amin Palace Hotel in Beiteddine, to the eco-friendly Bkerzay Village project and the many other guesthouses dotted around the Shouf that are supervised by the reserve’s management team.

From the banana groves of Damour to the peaks of Barouk and the old palaces of the Maan and Chehab dynasties, Shouf has much to offer.

Hani Bathish is a Beirut-based journalist with two decades of experience in print journalism, having worked in both Lebanon and the Gulf covering a range of topics