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Reconstructing cultural tourism

Creating touristic destinations from Lebanon’s antiquity sites

by Nabila Rahhal

You see them adorning the walls of Beirut’s Rafik Hariri International Airport and the Ministry of Tourism, in picture books about Lebanon or even flashing by in advertisements promoting the country. Images depicting Lebanon’s sites of antiquity, accompanied by a logo of the country’s name written in Arabic calligraphy, have become etched in people’s minds as symbols representing Lebanese tourism.

The reality, however, is different from the images. Instead of the cities that host these renowned archeological sites being swarmed with tourists and visitors, many of them — with few exceptions — are mere shadows of their potential in terms of touristic revenues.

According to figures gathered from the Ministry of Tourism, 2013 saw a double digits percentage drop in the number of visitors to cultural antiquity sites compared to 2012, ranging from a 65 percent drop in Tripoli or a 37 drop in Baalbeck, to a 16 percent drop in Tyre or 18 percent in Beiteddine. While the number of visitors rose in 2014, it was still low when compared to the proportion of tourist visits in other ancient cities also rich with heritage sites, such as Athens or Rome.

The reasons given for such a meager performance vary among the public and private sector stakeholders involved in the preservation and promotion of Lebanon’s archeological antiquities. Executive took a closer look at three cultural antiquity sites in Lebanon to see what their current condition is, and what factors are involved in developing a touristic destination around them.

Who’s who in cultural ruins?

While many entities play a role in preserving Lebanon’s antiquity sites, they are directly managed by the Directorate General of Antiquities (DGA), which was under the Ministry of Tourism until 1992 and became a part of the Ministry of Culture after its formation. The DGA is responsible for the management, conservation and maintenance of the sites. This can range from the smallest details — such as cleanliness — to decisions related to further excavations or the addition of infrastructure — such as museums or signage — geared to enhance visitors’ experiences. The DGA has one specialized archaeologist in each region of Lebanon who oversees the cultural antiquities and is responsible for handling the sites’ needs in coordination with the director, who is based in Beirut. When it comes to the marketing of archeological sites, the DGA collaborates with the Ministry of Tourism to promote the attraction, usually as part of its tourism strategy, through the international exhibitions they take part in or the media they produce, which includes brochures, advertisements and billboards.

“We cooperate with the Ministry of Tourism and provide them with any information they need, but they usually only want general guidelines, which can be used to market these sites under certain strategies,” says Ali Badawi, the DGA’s archeologist in charge of Tyre’s ruins. He adds that the Ministry of Tourism is also responsible for the development of complementary activities near the site that would enhance its touristic appeal.

The world heritage list

When a cultural antiquity is placed on the UNESCO World Heritage list, more value and prestige is given to the site, and consequently more responsibility for its preservation is placed on the DGA.

There are 1,007 sites across the globe listed as World Heritage sites, with sites classified as natural (found in nature), cultural (man-made with cultural value) or a mix of both. Lebanon has four cultural sites listed — Baalbeck, Byblos, Tyre and Anjar — and one natural, the Qadisha Valley in the north.

Joseph Kreidi, program officer of the cultural sector at UNESCO, explains that for a site to be placed on the World Heritage list, it has to meet a long list of criteria and standards. The most important requirements are that the site has an outstanding universal appeal and a management plan outlining how it will be preserved and developed. UNESCO makes sure the country adheres to the management plan through a field visit every two years.

“The value of a site becoming a World Heritage one is that it gains universal value and ownership in that all international bodies are concerned and have the right to question what happens to it,” Kreidi says. This translates into more funding for preservation or rehabilitation projects from international bodies, such as the World Bank-funded programs to preserve the temples of Baalbeck from pollution and the citadel of Byblos from weather related elements.

Municipal and community support

Being representatives of their communities, the municipalities of the cities where the ruins are located are both benefactors and stakeholders in the development of their sites. According to the representatives of the DGA interviewed for this article, the municipalities directly benefit from these sites through admissions fees, of which they get half, with the other half going into the government’s coffers. The admissions fees range from $3 for the ruins of Tyre to $10 for the temples of Baalbeck, with the exact amount depending on the size of the site and the visitors’ nationality.

The municipalities also indirectly benefit from the increased economic activity that these sites bring to the city, especially when the city is well equipped with venues that provide additional opportunities for leisure, such as restaurants and hotels. According to those interviewed for this article, the municipalities’ cooperation is always sought when developing projects in the cities where antiquity sites are based, as the end goal for all those involved is the viability of the site and its surrounding town, which can only be achieved by working together.

However, the relationship between the public sector — charged with the management and development of the cultural antiquities, along with the cities hosting them — and the private sector — which has the finances needed to invest in revitalizing these cities — is not always a smooth one, with both parties often deeming the other exploitative.


Byblos: the makings of a destination

Archeological sites alone are not enough to build a touristic destination, as complementary activities are needed to encourage visitors to extend their stay in the city by a couple of hours or even a day or two.

Named the Arab Capital of Tourism for 2016, it seems that Byblos has achieved the goal of becoming a top tourist spot for both domestic and international tourism. The citadel, its main cultural antiquity site, received 90,000 visitors in 2014 according to Tania Zaven, the DGA archaeologist responsible for the Mount Lebanon area, who says that peak season for the citadel is from April to June, when most schools choose to send their students on field trips.

[pullquote]“Byblos is the closest [antiquity site] to Beirut and the safest”[/pullquote]

“Byblos is the closest [antiquity site] to Beirut and the safest, so maybe this is why visitors come here. They also have the option of the beach, hotels and restaurants, which helps us attract people to our antiquities, plus the fact that it is a World Heritage site,” says Zaven, explaining the appeal of the city.

Meanwhile, Ayoub Bark, vice president of Byblos’ municipal board, says there were around 15,000 visitors over a period of three days at the wine festival, which was held in the old port earlier in June. The municipality proudly speaks of the upcoming schedule of summer events — which include, aside from the annual international festival, a bicycle tour, a film festival and a 3D animation screening on the walls of the citadel.

Yet Bark feels the creation of a cultural tourism destination is bigger than the scope of the municipality and a larger part of the work should be handled by the government through the ministries of tourism, public works, culture and transportation. These ministries need to work together in their respective capacities to improve access to Byblos, and to properly promote and develop the area. ”What we as a municipality did is allow the old city to remain viable: We are maintaining its cleanliness, beautifying it and making it environmentally friendly by gradually increasing the pedestrian areas and widening the sidewalk,” Ayoub says.

Roger Eddé, CEO of Eddé Sands, is one of the biggest investors in Byblos, beginning with the development of Eddé Sands Hotel and Wellness Resort 12 years ago, which he sees as the foundation and heart of his later investments in the region. Namely, Eddé Yard and its many outlets in the old city’s souks that played a major role in reviving the area, according to Rafael Sfeir, mayor of Byblos from 2000 to 2004. “The cornerstone for creating a destination is always the flagship project and then, to fill the spaces between these cornerstones, you get other smaller investors to invest,” Eddé says, explaining how Byblos evolved into the touristic destination it is today.

Eddé estimates that his projects in Byblos have contributed to the economy of the city and its regional GDP a minimum of 20 to 100 times of what he has invested into the area. Yet, he feels that, to a large extent, the public sector has placed many obstacles in his way and he views them as detrimental to touristic investments.

Initially, when Eddé first conceived of Eddé Sands Resort, then-mayor Sfeir welcomed the idea. “When I met Mr. Eddé and we were discussing the project, I was acutely aware of the importance of such a project for Byblos. But this was personal because I was aware of the importance. It was not institutional,” Sfeir says. He explains that he does not see this process becoming institutional within the current framework of the Lebanese law, where local governments only care about generating more revenue from taxes.

“They charge us fees and taxes, and they make conditions whereas we have no legal protection anywhere else in the system. It starts at the level of government and goes down to the level of municipalities where you are asked to pay this or that kind of amount, which is subject to change,” says Fadi Eddé, CEO of Eddé Sands Hotel and Wellness Resort and Roger’s younger brother, who also views the public sector as exploitative.

While the speed and breadth that Byblos has been developing has its merits for the area’s touristic status and economy, Zaven worries it comes at the expense of the preservation of the old city and its authenticity which, as a World Heritage Site, must maintain certain standards.

“Because the entire city is an archeological one, there are potentially more ruins still lying beneath the surface of the souks. Therefore, before any construction or alterations take place, we have to give our approval in collaboration with the municipality. We both want the same thing, which is the viability of Byblos as a touristic area, but we at the Ministry of Culture think in the long term and don’t want to compromise the authenticity and charm of the area. It is a balancing act,” she concludes.


Baalbeck: Living in past glory

In the 1950s, Baalbeck was a city renowned for its rich cultural life with thousands of visitors flocking to its temple to watch international stars perform under the moonlight. The city had four five star hotels at a time when it was hard to find that many quality hotels anywhere else in the country, recounts Mohamad Wehbe, the representative of the Lebanese Tour Guides Syndicate and a guide in Baalbeck.

More recently, and before the war in Syria, Baalbeck had an active touristic life. Laure Salloum, DGA archeologist in Baalbeck and Hermel, explains that tourists visiting Syria, Iraq or Turkey would include Baalbeck on their itinerary en route to Aleppo.

Today, the famed Palmyra Hotel’s 27 rooms are collecting dust and while a hotel project, Kenaan, was launched around three years ago in proximity to Baalbeck’s fresh water spring, no significant investments in tourism have been made since. There are only a few restaurants in direct proximity to the temples and the shops catering to tourists are either almost empty of goods or closed.

[pullquote]“Things never really got back to the way they used to be before the Civil War”[/pullquote]

A manager on duty at the Palmyra Hotel says that, save for the period of the festival when they are almost full, they barely get any bookings and consider a week when they have just five booked rooms a “very good one.” Bahzad Asfahani, owner of the 70 year old Restaurant Al-Ajami in the city, says touristic activity in Baalbeck has been slowing down for the past 10 years and is almost at a standstill now: “Things never really got back to the way they used to be before the Civil War when Baalbeck was always full of foreigners and cultural events,” he recalls.

Hamad Hasan, mayor of Baalbeck, says the municipality’s share of touristic returns from the temples in 2003 reached $2.5 million while last year it was $86,000 only, with figures from the Ministry of Tourism showing that the number of visitors to the temple has decreased by 30 percent since 2014.

“Baalbeck has one of the oldest and most well known temples in the world, but despite this, the city is marginalized and neglected. This means there is a glitch in the area’s public policy. Therefore, a policy should be developed for Baalbeck city, which would look at ways to capitalize on the presence of this temple for the general good of its citizens and the quality of their public life,” says Mohammad Ayoub, founder and director of Nahnoo, an NGO which works on various issues related to public life in Lebanon. One potential idea proposed by Ayoub is that the site play host to a series of events in Baalbeck, rather than just one central event, the Baalbeck International Festival.

The DGA is aware of the challenges facing Baalbeck, and Salloum says that since 2011, the temple of Baalbeck and its surroundings have been undergoing a conservation and rehabilitation project funded by the World Bank entitled Cultural Heritage Urban Development (CHUD), whose goal is to allow people to benefit from the touristic area in their city.

One of the ways the DGA is achieving this goal, through the CHUD project, is by increasing the areas which tourists can visit within the temple by developing access to the ruins and rerouting the entrance to it through the medieval city adjacent to the currently “open to the public” space in the temples.

The Ministry of Culture is also looking into developing other touristic attractions within the Baalbeck region, which Salloum says is rich with history and potential. Projects include public gardens on the slopes of the Eastern Lebanon mountain range or the rehabilitation of existing natural landmarks such as Hajar el Hibla (Stone of the Pregnant Woman) in Baalbeck, which is among the largest monoliths ever quarried. “Such projects will improve the touristic experience in Baalbeck and people will be encouraged to spend more time in the region,” she says.

Since it is part of a World Heritage site, the old souk area a walking distance to the north of the temple site should be in harmony with its surroundings and remain authentic, Salloum says, adding that parts of the souk are being restored to their former and authentic stonewall façades through the CHUD project, an act she hopes will also attract more tourists to the city. “We encourage the development of restaurants and hostels in the old city as long as they remain in harmony with the temples, which are at the heart of tourism in the region.’

For his part, Hasan calls on the Ministry of Tourism to support Baalbeck: “When Baalbeck was one of the richest cities in Lebanon, they were our partners supporting us and sharing in the profits. Today, when we are poor and we need their support, they turn their backs on us and support areas which are only for leisure tourism. The Ministry of Tourism should include Baalbeck in its tourism strategy because Baalbeck is a cultural landmark and has a rich history.”

Still, not all is lost, and Hasan is optimistic that a better touristic season is ahead now that the security situation is being addressed in the Qalamoun mountain range along Lebanon and Syria’s border. Despite everything, Salloum says that the Baalbeck temple is still one of the most visited sites in Lebanon because of its size and fame, but that the city itself needs to be better developed touristically to encourage visitors to the temples to spend time there instead of going to Zahle for leisure activities.


Tyre: a touristic destination on the rise

[pullquote]“When we resumed work in the 1990s, our main goal was to preserve what we had”[/pullquote]

Before the onset of the Civil War, excavation works were taking place at high speed in Tyre with a 600-strong team working on both the hippodrome and seaside ruins until 1976, explains Badawi, the DGA archaeologist based in Tyre. “When we resumed work in the 1990s, our main goal was to preserve what we had, which was deteriorating because of erosion, before uncovering the ruins that still lie beneath the surface,” Badawi says. The war also saw the development of what UNESCO’s Kreidi calls illegal high rises — the buildings overlooking the main Tyre antiquity site — which did not get approval or permits from the DGA before construction.

Two Palestinian camps were also built on the outskirts of the excavated ruins, under which more ruins are thought to lie. “To look at the positive side, there are no buildings in the camps and the ruins are buried underneath with nothing destroying them,” Kreidi says. He adds that all this occurred during the chaos of the war, but that today the municipality of Tyre is very aware of the cultural importance of its antiquities and is used as a model of cooperation by UNESCO.

Badawi also speaks highly of the municipality of Tyre, giving an example of how, when the ruins’ cleaning crew had retired and the government was unable to hire a new one, the municipality began sending its city cleaning team to maintain cleanliness of the sites. “Honestly, in Lebanon, the cooperation of the municipality depends on the municipality itself. For example, in Tyre, the municipality is convinced that the site is part of the city and this is why they have claimed ownership of these ruins,” Badawi says.

In terms of what Badawi calls tourism infrastructure, Tyre has witnessed a steady rise in the number of restaurants and hotels, especially in the old city, with three hotels or guesthouses opening in the last three years and two similar projects in the works. “Restaurants and hotels are among the main pillars of a destination, along with some leisure activities to make a stay more enjoyable. We have the beaches for leisure, both for public and private usage, and there are many investments along the coast,” he explains, emphasizing that despite all these being private sector investments, they wouldn’t have been successful had the municipality not facilitated the process, encouraged investments, and developed the beauty and infrastructure of the city.

But it is still a balancing act to manage the cultural and the commercial aspects of a touristic destination. “The recent touristic investments in Tyre, with respects to its relative newness as a potential touristic destination, is very good to an extent, but I am worried it will become too commercial and chaotic, losing part of its virgin charm or identity. People like coming to the old city. We should leave it at that and have the touristic services for convenience,” Badawi concludes.

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Nabila Rahhal

Nabila is Executive's hospitality, tourism and retail editor. She also covers other topics she's interested in such as education and mental health. Prior to joining Executive, she worked as a teacher for eight years in Beirut. Nabila holds a Masters in Educational Psychology from the American University of Beirut. Send mail

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