Feb 1966 – Story published in Saudi Aramco World.
The headline on the tourist magazine was big and bold. “Skiing in Lebanon,” it read, “is snowballing.” And all afternoon the hundreds of skiers in tight bright ski pants who tramped in and out of the posh lobby of the new resort hotel and snatched up the magazine gave immediate, if unconscious, confirmation. Skiing is snowballing in Lebanon.
Visitors are often surprised to discover that this small hot country on the sunny shore of the Mediterranean is developing into a major center for winter sports. Actually Lebanon is only one of several Mediterranean and Middle Eastern countries—Morocco, Algeria, Greece, Cyprus, Turkey, Iraq and Iran—where, in spite of semitropical temperatures, skiing is catching on fast. And in Lebanon it is catching on faster.
It was a Lebanese engineer returning from studies in Switzerland who introduced skiing to Lebanon in 1913. But it was not until the 1930’s that a group of dedicated French and Lebanese young people began to ski in earnest. “We used to spend three hours climbing a slope,” recalls Dr. George Zabouni, president of the Club des Chalets, Lebanon’s biggest ski club. “Then we’d make one descent and it would be over. Now we make 30 runs a day.”
Dr. Emile Riache, president of the Lebanese Ski Federation, makes the same point. “For 20 years we had no mechanical tows. How could we really improve our technique with one run a day?” He mentioned, as an example, the effort involved in climbing 10,000-foot Mt. Hermon of Biblical fame. For one admittedly breathtaking, 20-minute descent, it took five hours of climbing.
In 1935, while France still governed Lebanon, the French army established a ski school in Bsharri, a village in the valley just below the famous Cedars. The army’s aim was to train soldiers who could patrol the rugged and unruly mountain areas of Lebanon. The results were something else: a generation of trained skiers who, 17 years later, proudly carried the Cedar flag to the Olympic Games in Norway.
Since then the growth has been phenomenal. The Lebanese Ski Federation, once only a branch of the Federation of Swimming Clubs, now has 12 member clubs whose combined buying power last year enabled the federation to help bring in eight ski instructors from Europe and to organize a week of international competition that attracted top skiers from Switzerland, Germany, Austria, France and Britain. Michel Sem’an, proprietor of one of seven ski shops in Beirut, estimates that the number of skiers has been increasing at the rate of 10 to 20 per cent a year and says it shot up 30 per cent last year. Resort owners, working on a rough but apparently accurate count of automobiles, say some 3,000 persons swarm into the mountains every Sunday from late fall to early spring. Some head for open slopes like Baidar Pass on the Beirut-Damascus Highway. This slope, less than 5,000 feet high, and with inadequate snow cover, has won fame through its annual ski train—antiquated, open cars that crawl up the cog railway once or twice a year when the highway is blocked. Most skiers, however, head for one of the three major ski resorts that seem destined now to dominate the industry in years ahead: The Cedars, Laklouk and Mzaar (ex Faraya- Mzaar).
Of the three, The Cedars, today, offers most to the good skier. Perched on a natural platform 6,300 feet above the Mediterranean, in a great bowl scooped from the flanks of peaks that reach up to 10,000 feet, the resort is blessed with breathtaking beauty, the fame of its six thousand-year-old cedar trees—survivors of the magnificent giants that once covered all of Lebanon’s mountains—and the barracks built by the French army. Developers have added three T-bars, a two-stage chair lift, two hotels, five pensions, two stereo clubs, a snack bar, 50 private chalets and a 40-bed youth hostel, and have worked hard at improving and lengthening the steep trails that draw skiers from around the world.
Families, however, prefer Laklouk, a resort area begun about 15 years ago by a banker named Joseph Sa’ab at a time when the possibility of establishing a successful ski center amid barren mountains seemed laughable. Laklouk today boasts two handsome sandstone hotels—appropriately named “Shangri-La” and “Nirvana”—a spring-fed swimming pool, gorgeous flower gardens, fruit orchards, mineral springs and a safe, gentle slope that has been dynamited out of a nearby cliff and carefully scraped and hoed into skiable shape. There are dormitories for schoolchildren, a fleet of motor-driven ski-buggies, a stereo club, two restaurants, 14 villas—each with a fireplace—and swimming pools. Nearby there are two Roman temples, one of the deepest natural potholes in the world and an underground river emerging from mysterious sources deep with the mountains.
For Beirut, the newest and the most convenient ski area is Mzaar (ex Faraya-Mzaar). Only 39 miles away on good if hair-raising roads (and even closer next spring when a new highway will be finished), Mzaar is actually within sight of Beirut. On clear days, skiers, moving up the mountainside on the silent chair lift, can look down nearly 8,000 feet and see the outline of the buildings in the city. They can also look down on a snowy plateau at the foot of the ski lift and see a 70-room hotel that would rank with the best in New England or Sun Valley, a youth hostel, a restaurant, a snack bar, a ski shop, a swimming pool with cabanas and 27 furnished chalets. Mzaar is primarily the creation of Shaikh Selim al-Khazen, board chairman of the company that developed it and the man who saw the possibilities of skiing many years ago and kept the idea of development alive by sponsoring an annual skiing banquet in the village of Faraya. Skiers who wished to attend had only to climb the nearby summit and ski down once.
Charles Helou, President of Lebanon and a former director of the National Council of Tourism, has placed the tourist industry high on the list of priorities for his country’s progress. He has formed a high-level committee made up of representatives from the ministries of public works, interior, and education; from the army and from the ski federation. Michel Khoury, Helou’s successor as director of the tourist council, is committee chairman. The government, according to Joseph Kairouz, president of the Banque du Credit Populaire and promoter of a new project at The Cedars, “has realized that tourism can be our number one industry, a key source of national revenue. And it has suddenly dawned on our businessmen that the jet age has brought us within reach of the middle class European vacationer.”
The results of this new awareness are already visible. Roads in the high mountains originally planned for military purposes are being built to serve resort areas as well. Scores of special police are assigned regularly to help control weekend traffic. First aid and ambulance services have been established at the three major resorts. Emergency radio service has been put into operation—since storms often disrupt telephone connections—and army helicopters have been put at the disposal of architects and planners. Snow plows, formerly kept as far away as Beirut, and never called until after the last flake of snow had fallen, are now stationed in the mountains, ready, day or night, to crank up and go, methodically working from the resorts down to the villages. In 1964 some roads were blocked three weeks by frozen drifts; last year they were never closed longer than a full day.
“I don’t think the development was so rapid in Europe,” Dr. Zabouni reflects. “Not so impatient! My father wore a high collar and wouldn’t have dreamed of putting on a pair of skis. I became the president of a ski club, my oldest son Alain places in the men’s championships. And his younger brother, well, who knows?”
Roger Saliby, who gave up dentistry to promote the first ski installation—a T-bar—at Faraya, says he and his partner, Sami Jamal, built the now-flourishing Mzaar operation “in a moment of madness.”
“But still I want the sport to succeed,” he said. “I knew if Mzaar was a success, others would try too. The more competition the better. I wanted a successful example to encourage them.”
Last year Mr. Saliby’s wish was granted. Mzaar’s operations racked up a profit for the first time—but mostly because Beirut-based airplane crews, staying over between flights, tried the new hotel and kept the facilities busy during weekdays. This made a significant difference because, as at most ski areas, skiing in Lebanon has been restricted to weekends.
“They were deserted during the week,” said one investor, “but fortunately, nature, geography and now technology, have combined to give them what they need to draw foreign visitors in ever larger numbers throughout the week.”
“I’d be a liar if I said our ski trails were like the European ones,” Saliby admits candidly. “But it’s only 30 minutes between swimming and skiing and we can throw in Roman temples and caves and Phoenician ruins as well. No other country can match the ensemble. In Lebanon, there are at least seven months of sun at the beach and, when new ski lifts are completed, there will be seven months of snow as well.”
That adds up to a 14-month season for tourists during which swimming and skiing weather will overlap. The weather, furthermore, is stable. Investors in one proposed resort conducted three years of observation and later reported they could tell almost to the day how many days of powder, crust, boilerplate or corn snow could be expected. Planners have also studied 11 locations in Europe, compared conditions with those in Lebanon and have come away more than satisfied.
This has not been lost on the European tourist agencies, particularly those eager to open new territories. Last year, German, French and British companies organized two-week group charter nights to the Middle East that offered room, board and air fare for under $200. The idea was—and is—to let the visitors relax in the sun, either on the shore or on the slopes, during the week and then organize excursions to Baalbek, Damascus or Jerusalem over Saturday and Sunday so that resort facilities are free for the Lebanese on the weekends. “Europeans are very keen on sunburn, you know,” smiles Laklouk’s Joseph Sa’ab, also president of the Development Bank, “and Spain, Greece and the Riviera are getting overcrowded. Lebanon is new.”
“Once international tourism begins, it booms,” Mr. Saliby adds, “and our word-of-mouth publicity has been all favorable. Now that the Europeans have heard what we have to offer we’re expecting big things.”
On Lebanon’s hard-packed slopes avalanches are rare, yet avalanche is the word to describe the burst of planned development ahead. At the Yamle Center at The Cedars a model village with strict zoning laws has been laid out. This season a 3 5-room hotel and 12 chalets were completed. Other features will be added step by step, including ice skating facilities, a motel and developments on one of the high slopes with a northern exposure. Laklouk is meeting the competition with a new chair lift up the protected northern face of Mt. Blanc scheduled for this season, along with two T-bars near the top. An artificial-snow machine will fill the bare spots on the slope and around the hotel. For the summer there will be a new nine-hole golf course and a landing strip. Long-range plans include more hotels and hillside villas on large plots among the orchards. Foreign interests may join in a proposed seaside project at Byblos linked to the mountain resort by frequent bus service.
At Mzaar, a second ski tow, to connect the present one with the chair lift, will be built next year along with a unique new V-shaped chair lift carrying skiers up slopes on both sides of a valley. Long-range hopes include a golf course and tennis court, a new village on the upper plateau with a web of eight ski tows, all to be connected with projected centers on the other side of the Mzaar peak (if the government can be persuaded to finance a $600,000 gondola lift). If plans go well, in fact, within 10 years Mzaar’s combined facilities could include nearly everything needed for the world ski championships.
Just north of Faraya, at Nab’ al-‘Assal, another company has detailed plans to build a 9,000-foot cabin lift by 1968. There will be a de luxe hotel, chalets, covered parking, a heated pool, and a ski school for both beginning and advanced levels. A short portable tow would be moved to the best children’s slope depending on conditions. The planners hope to encourage the sport by getting the beginners off to an organized start, and will rent all the equipment needed right down to ski pants. “Skiing is 50 per cent boots, 30 per cent skis, and only 20 per cent courage,” they say.
South of Faraya, at Qanat Bakiche, a modest center is planned with two tows and a chair lift to exploit the very steep sea face of Mt. Mzaar above Beirut. There are vague plans too for a new chair lift on Mt. Sannine and even for a development on towering Mt. Hermon.
Like a beginner who has mastered the herringbone climb and the snow plow turn and has made his first run down a novice trail, Lebanon is moving toward big-time skiing. Ahead may be unexpected turns, sudden changes of pace and bone-jarring falls. But that, after all, is half the fun.