Following a particularly long winter that included snowfalls as late as mid-April, Lebanon has truly come alive this spring. The lush greenery dotted with colorful wildflowers, the swarm of bright butterflies, and the gushing rivers and serene lakes all make visitors to these areas pop out their phone cameras far too frequently in an attempt to capture their natural beauty.
Picturesque sites such as those described above—and the activities that could be done around them—are assets for Lebanon’s tourism, especially in spring when the majority of Lebanon’s freshwater bodies are at their peak appeal. It is rare to see a lake or river in Lebanon without a restaurant, café, or picnic site as its backdrop, unless they are part of a natural reserve. More recently, the banks of lakes and rivers have also been the sites of a variety of ecotourism activities such as hiking and cycling. However, there is a potential for sustainable year-long tourism at Lebanon’s lakes and rivers that has yet to be fully developed.
Food for thought
According to Jad Abou Arrage, assistant professor at the faculty of tourism and hospitality management at the Lebanese University, whenever there is a freshwater body the first thing to develop is the infrastructure to access it—no matter how primitive that infrastructure might be—and the second is a touristic enterprise, usually in the form of a restaurant, to cater to visitors. Once one restaurant opens and is successful, others typically follow, creating a cluster of restaurants that can be found around many of the water bodies in Lebanon. Starting from the late 1920s, Zahle’s Berdawni river restaurants were a popular visit point and were even the subject of a poem by Ahmad Shawki entitled “Ya Arrous el-Wadi” (the bride of the valley), in reference to the two hills between which the Berdawni flows. Today, each region of Lebanon has its preferred riverside cluster: the north has Nabeh Mar Sarkis in Ehden, the Shouf has Nabeh el-Safa’s waterfalls, the south has the waterfalls at Jezzine, and the Bekaa has Lake Qaraoun.
Regardless of their location, by and large these riverside restaurants have the same structure and business model. Executive’s field research found that the average capacity was 500, and that typically Lebanese mezze and mashaweh are offered on the menu, with some local variations. For example, restaurants around Hermel’s Assi river are known for their trout fish, while those around Ehden’s Mar Sarkis spring are known for their kibbeh. The average bill is $20 per person, although it can go as low as $12 or as high as $35 depending on the order.
For most of the low altitude restaurants surveyed, the season starts before the Easter break or by the end of April; waterside restaurants at higher altitudes open in early June when temperatures stabilize. Those Executive spoke with described May and June as “field-trip season,” as during that period their clientele is mostly made up of school children having lunch while on a field trip, or larger groups who have rented buses privately or via tour operators to take day excursions across Lebanon.
This is followed by the summer season when restaurant owners say business is at its best due to local Lebanese children being on vacation, Lebanese expats visiting, and the generally higher number of tourists. According to those interviewed, tourists from the Arab Gulf were a big percentage of their clientele until their numbers plummeted five years ago and only began increasing again this past summer. Only restaurants around the Hasbani and Wazani rivers in south Lebanon rely entirely on Lebanese since they lie behind the security line and as such, non-Lebanese would need to obtain a permit from defense ministry offices in Saida or Nabatiyeh to access them, which many consider a hassle.
The season ends by mid-October, when most of these restaurants recede to their smaller winter venue—often an indoor section of the same restaurant—where they make just enough money to cover their expenses and maintain a market presence. “We reduce the number of staff by half in winter and only open on weekends since we get far less customers than we do in the summer—usually those who are from the area and are loyal to us,” says Saadeh Hamade, the manager of Anjar’s Al Jazira restaurant.
A summer meal with a view is one way to enjoy freshwater bodies, but instead of that being the only option, it could exist as part of a more developed tourism infrastructure that makes full use of these natural tourism assets.
To the rescue
Ecotourism is defined by the International Ecotourism Society as tourism directed toward natural environments intended to support conservation efforts and observe wildlife. It is a socially responsible form of tourism that supports local communities and environmental sustainability.
Ali Awada, founder of kayaking and rafting company Sport Nature Club, believes that ecotourism came about because travelers had grown weary of the conventional mass tourism model of a bus “to main sites and a fast food restaurant on the way back.” He had noticed the emergence of the ecotourism trend in the 1990s, when he was living in France, and thought of bringing back an element of it to Lebanon. “To me, its role would be twofold: it would show people a different side of Lebanon—especially since we were coming out of the civil war—and it would also develop rural tourism in neglected areas such as Khiam, Hermel, and Akkar, where three main rivers are,” says Awada, referencing the Litani, Assi, and Awali rivers respectively. Awada established his kayaking and rafting business in 1995, starting with the Assi river in Hermel, and says he takes an average of 500 adventurers per summer either rafting or kayaking there.
Ecotourism is not new to Lebanon, but the past decade has seen a rapid increase in the number of ecotourism operators in the country. “In 1997, there were only four [ecotourism operators], in 2010 there were 25, and today there are close to 90,” says Abou Arrage. “This is because domestic tourism has developed a lot over the past couple of years; many Lebanese cannot afford to travel abroad anymore, and so seize the opportunity to enjoy nature activities once a week on Sundays as the cost is much less.”
The increase in visits to Lebanon’s natural biospheres and protected areas also indicates a growing interest among those in Lebanon to enjoy the country’s natural beauty where it exists (see boxes for more on these sites). For example, Domaine Taanayel, famous for its lake, had around 12,000 visitors in 2010, when arcencial, a Lebanese non-profit organization focusing on development, first took over management. By 2018 that had increased over 15-fold to 183,000 visitors. Tony Saliba, head of ecotourism at arcenciel attributes this increase to the growing interest in ecotourism in Lebanon.
Through ecotourism, the potential for tourism around Lebanon’s fresh water bodies is diversified and expanded beyond just having lunch overlooking the water to something that is more sustainable for the industry and for the environment. Mark Aoun, general manager of local ecotourism NGO Vamos Todos, explains that a wide variety of their activities take place over freshwater bodies. The most obvious example is hiking or trekking, which is popular near almost all freshwater bodies including along Nahr el-Jawz in Batroun, the Qadisha valley close to the cedars, and alongside Chouwen in the Jabal Moussa Reserve.
Rafting is most popular in Hermel’s Assi River, although Awada says he is trying to increase the popularity of the Litani river in the south. There is also caving across the Jezzine waterfalls and zip lining and climbing in Balou Balaa, close to Batroun.
Boat rides used to be common on Lake Qaraoun, but this season boats have been banned due to worries that they will be pulled by the overflow-drain pipe toward the end of the lake, and to prevent them from polluting the lake by dumping fuel, according to Sami Alawieh, director of Litani River Authority.
While tourism in Lebanon is concentrated in the summer, ecotourism around freshwater bodies opens up the possibility of spring tourism—a positive step toward year-long tourism—since these assets are at their maximum appeal in the cooler spring months. Some rivers, such as Nahr el-Dahab, which is part of the Jabal Moussa Reserve, dry up in the summer and so can only be enjoyed in spring. Rafting in Jounieh’s Nahr el-Kalb is a spring-only activity as well, according to Awada, since water levels are too low in the summer. For low altitude locations, spring is the ideal time for hiking before it gets too hot.
The money trail
Having a well-maintained and managed freshwater body in an area can revitalize the local economy through ecotourism. Abou Arrage says municipality heads who have recognized the value of their natural assets have capitalized on them by introducing hiking trails and organizing events around these freshwater bodies. For example, the Kfour municipality in Keserwan developed a hiking trail connecting four springs.
As part of their mandate, biospheres work on including and empowering the communities in which they are based. In keeping with that, both the Shouf Biosphere Reserve and the Jabal Moussa Reserve employ youth from the region as guides and guards and support women from the community in producing mouneh (such as jams, syrups, honey) that they brand and sell under the biosphere’s name, taking only a small percentage of profit.
The biospheres have also encouraged the creation of guesthouses and tables d’hôte (when a family opens its doors to visitors for a fixed-price set menu) within these communities. In Jabal Moussa Reserve, there are different formulas for tables d’hôtestarting with the basic $10 formula of salad, a main meal, and drink, while Shouf Biosphere Reserve fixes the price at $15 for a full lunch. In addition, there are the peripheral businesses that open in proximity of the reserve and benefit from it. These activities include camping sites near the Jabal Moussa Reserve, and horseback riding or cycling next to the Shouf Biosphere Reserve—these activities are not allowed within the reserves.
Hotels and conventional restaurants overlooking freshwater bodies and in proximity to reserves also benefit from increased business. “Barouk has beautiful nature overlooking the river with the backdrop of the cedars forest reserve, and so a lot of people are coming to enjoy the activities in and around the reserve, such as biking and hiking, and end up staying in the area overnight,” says Imad Mahmoud, owner of the Hideout, a guest chalet that opened in the area in October 2018 in response to the increased activity.
The economic potential of ecotourism within and surrounding these reserves is significant. A 2015 study entitled “The Economic Value of the Shouf Biosphere Reserve” found that the biosphere generates revenues in the range of $16.8 million to $21.4 million annually.
To illustrate the economic impact of well-managed natural assets on their surroundings, Joelle Barakat, conservation manager at Jabal Moussa Reserve says: “Before the Jabal Moussa Reserve in 2007, the area did not have much tourism infrastructure, and only hikers or locals knew of the natural sites. With the reserve, more guesthouses and small restaurants have opened. We have 28,000 visitors per year, while at the beginning, there were just 300.” She goes on to explain that their main target is to create a cycle where the whole community is working for and benefitting from the biosphere.
The river runs through
Despite what is being done at a private level in terms of ecotourism around freshwater bodies, there is definitely room for better organization of this type of tourism and for capitalizing more on freshwater bodies that are not parts of natural reserves. “You feel that the river itself is not an attraction in Lebanon as we don’t have comprehensive tourism products around our rivers, or a tourism strategy to promote them, like rivers in other cities around the world do,” explains Abu Arrage. “One of the reasons for this is that governance of these rivers is not organized or clear, with municipalities, the Ministry of Environment, the Ministry of Energy and Water, and the Ministry of Interior all having one sort of authority or another over these waterbodies.”
Visible pollution and littering also stand in the way of fully enjoying freshwater bodies located outside of reserves. Although 10 rivers fall under the Ministry of Environment’s natural protected sites list—meaning certain regulations such as maintaining cleanliness and keeping 16 meters around the river free from construction in theory are in place—Executive’s team found countless examples of littering along these supposedly protected waters.
Such sights negatively impact tourism around those waterbodies, as people want to enjoy nature’s beauty when on an outing, and so would avoid places they hear are polluted, explains Abu Arrage. The polluted state of the Litani has negatively impacted tourism around Lake Qaraoun explains Wissam Massaad, the owner of Chalet Du Lac, a restaurant overlooking the lake. “We had already felt the impact of the pollution on our business in 2017, but 2018 was worse in terms of a decrease in number of clients because there was more coverage of the pollution in 2018,” he says. “People would hear that the Qaraoun smells or looks bad, and would prefer to spend their day elsewhere in Zahle or Anjar.”
If the Ministry of Tourism is to be taken seriously in its appeal for year-long tourism, then it would be well advised to clean up Lebanon’s freshwater bodies and coordinate with stakeholders to capitalize on these beautiful tourism assets through ecotourism and conventional tourism activities—before it is too late.