Lebanon Keeps its White Christmas to Itself


Dec 2001 – The Daily Star – Tiare Rath

Snow blanketed Lebanon’s mountains early this year. The white Christmas brought with it the gift of open slopes and hopes for a long and lucrative ski season. Unfortunately only the Lebanese and local expats are aware of this. With mountains up to 3,090 meters in height, and a climate mild enough to let you actually enjoy playing in the snow, Lebanon is a prime destination in the Middle East for winter activities. The problem, critics say, is the same that afflicts tourism generally, the country just isn’t selling itself. The world needs “sort of a brainwashing” when it comes to Lebanon, argues Pierre Abi Aoun, general manager of Wild Expeditions, a Hazmieh-based company that organizes outdoor excursions.

Lebanon Whote ChristmasIn the United States, says Abi Aoun, who spent time there as a youth, Lebanon is perceived as “a desert with people in a bunch of tents waiting for an American to come so they can shoot him.” The image is not much more positive in the rest of the world, which knows little about Lebanon beyond its reputation as the birthplace of the car bomb. Those who know that Lebanon is bereft of desert, that it is in fact home to six ski resorts and numerous cross-country ski trails, are in the minority. “When (foreigners) discover this, they want to return, and they do return,” says Ronald Sayegh, the founder of SKILEB.com. It is imperative, Abi Aoun argues, to get them here. “The government needs to do more campaigns. It’s a must.”

The number of people who visited Lebanon in 2001 during the height of the ski season ­ January, February and March ­ was 60 percent less than those who arrived in June, July and August. Parliament recently approved $1 million for the Tourism Ministry to promote the country, but in the past, skiing and winter activities have been only a small part of the ministry’s campaigns. Brochures on skiing in Lebanon were printed in Spanish, Italian, French, English, Arabic and German two years ago, but the ministry has few copies left and has not yet reprinted any. It sent the brochures to its embassies and left it up to them to promote Lebanon abroad.

For visitors already here, there are few resources from the government. A glance inside the tourist information bureau in Hamra reveals only snippets of material regarding Lebanon in winter, and those must be sought out. The ministry is running a spot on Lebanese satellite television stations featuring ski resorts, snowball fights and the always-beautiful Lebanese gliding down slopes. It was made in Arabic, no doubt to target other Arab countries, which remain Lebanon’s largest market. Their contribution to Lebanese tourism has grown even more important since the attacks on New York and Washington and visits to the region plummeted.

“After the events of Sept. 11, all of our groups were canceled,” Abi Aoun says. “Imagine that.” “In terms of business, there is potential,” he adds. “But it’s extremely related to the political situation.” Informing people that Lebanon actually has mountains and snow “is the easiest part,” says Sayegh. “What’s hard to accomplish is the trust. People wouldn’t trust to come to Lebanon, especially now.” Abi Aoun and Sayegh maintain that there is a major untapped market, and that is foreigners living in the Arab world. They’ve got the money and, considering that they reside in the region, are more likely to consider Lebanon as a winter destination ­ and one that’s closer than Europe. “Arab people, they are not into the outdoors. They’re getting more and more aware of this, but I’d say 75 percent of our people are expats in the region or Arabs in Europe or the States,” Abi Aoun says.

The Cedars boast the highest peaks in the country, but the prime ski resort is Mzaar (ex Faraya-Mzaar), which reaches as high as 2,465 meters. Because most of its equipment is modern ­ particularly the chair lifts ­ and because the town has managed to market itself as a place enjoyed by skiers and snow bunnies alike, The Mzaar resort is seen as having the most potential for international tourists. “Mzaar actually is the most equipped (resort) in the Middle East,” Sayegh says. “In the end it does beat certain resorts in Europe.” Mzaar Inter-Continental banked on foreigners coming to Lebanon when it opened its resort two years ago. It expects full occupancy through New Year’s, although less than half of the guests ­ 40 percent will come from abroad.

In terms of lift tickets, ski rentals and even hotel stays, Lebanon is often cheaper than Europe and one of the few places in the region ­ besides Turkey, Iran and Cyprus ­ to ski. But because there are no winter packages offering airfare, accommodation, lift tickets and ski rentals, Lebanon is “one of the most expensive (ski destinations) in the world,” asserts Jean Keirouz, an associate with the Cedars Ski Lift Society, which runs the Cedars resort. The company is expanding lifts to the top of the Cedars and is involved in plans to build three or four hotels by next year, but its top objective in terms of attracting foreigners is to arrange package deals, Keirouz says. “It’s not enough to say there’s skiing in Lebanon,” Sayegh agrees. “They need a full package, from the airport to the airport.”

Abi Aoun and Keirouz both see potential for winter tourism beyond the slopes. Skiing “needs to be combined with cultural tourism so even if there’s bad weather other activities can be taken advantage of,” Keirouz says. “Even if it’s good weather tourists can visit heritage sites.” With all of the hurdles, then, does Lebanon have a future as a winter destination? “In the long-term, yes, definitely,” Abi Aoun says. “Because things are improving.” As for the short term, he says, “We hope so.”

The competition Lebanon is one of the few, but not the only, country with ski slopes in the region. With mountains that practically touch the heavens, Iran has arguably the best skiing around. Five ski resorts are located near Tehran ­ the farthest and best of which is Dizin, 120 kilometers from the capital. The highest ski slope peak in the country is 3,850 meters, and Dizin boasts a peak of 3,600 meters. Skiing is dirt cheap, as well, with lift tickets running about $4. The sport has changed somewhat over the last few years, when the Islamic Republic changed its policy and actually let both sexes ski on the same slopes. According to a BBC report last year, though, signs were still hoisted warning men not to glance at ladies unless they were family members.

Turkey has half a dozen resorts, with the highest peak of 3,100 meters at Erzurum in the eastern part of the country. The Turks like to brag that in March and April in Antalya, a southern city that brushes against the Mediterranean, it is possible to ski and swim in the same day.

The ski-swim combo is also touted in Cyprus. Troodos is the only ski resort, its highest peak at 1,950 meters being on Mount Olympus. Skiing in Cyprus isn’t considered great because its slopes aren’t exactly steep, but daily lift tickets are priced at about $15, making it one of the few affordable activities on the tiny island.

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