Nov 2005 – The Sydney Morning Herald
The Middle East seems an unlikely place to go skiing, but Lebanon’s slopes are deep, fast and long. Ed O’Loughlin reports.
Those going the wrong way are mostly youngsters, students and schoolchildren from poorer backgrounds who come by the busload to stare at the snow.
For a small fee the daytrippers get a special two-way ticket for the ski lift, riding all the way to the top of 2300-metre Jabal Dib and down again, shivering in their street clothes.
Some hire plastic toboggans and drag them doggedly up the lower slopes, oblivious to the snow melting through their shoes and jeans. Snowballs are experimented with. Muslim girls in hijabs take advantage of the saturnalia to awkwardly hold hands with their boyfriends.
The Arabic cries of “Yalla ya shebab!” and “Habibi!” have an unreal sound in this high, white world.
And when the snow clouds draw back, Beirut can be seen far below, basking in the spring sun beside the glittering sea.
Lebanon has six commercial ski resorts and a season that usually runs from December to March. The biggest resorts, Mzaar (also known as Mzaar-Kfardebian) above Beirut and the Cedars to the north, are attracting a growing number of foreign visitors, mainly from the region. Plans for a third big ski resort are well under way. In 2009 the country will host the Asian Winter Games.
Skiing is playing an increasingly important role in Lebanon’s effort to reassert its pre-civil-war status as the Arab world’s leading tourist draw. To create new business, Lebanese entrepreneurs are even building two artificial ski slopes in the United Arab Emirates.
“Most of our foreign customers are from the Gulf states, particularly Western expats from Britain, Australia and South Africa,” says Ronald Sayegh, founder of www.skileb.com, the country’s leading booking and marketing agency.
“The remainder are Arabs, mostly younger, who book on the internet. And lately we get some Europeans, too. If you’ve skied in the Alps, then this is something new.”
Divided into two domains, the resort claims 43 trails totalling 60 kilometres, many of them steep, fast and long. Runs are classified green, blue, red and black. While most are groomed each day and technically not difficult (wealthy young Lebanese like life to be fast and flashy, which might explain why the resort shaves off any moguls that form), sudden sharp drops and prolonged narrow passages can make some of the higher slopes daunting at first for the inexperienced.
Most of the red slopes owe their status to dramatic roller-coaster-style drops. The blacks – only two are shown on the trail map – deserve their reputation, plummeting vertiginously down the sides of high bowls of deep powder. With the snow base so deep, rocks and obstacles are mercifully scarce – the biggest risk is usually little more than a face full of wettish snow.
But the most remarkable thing about the slopes of Mzaar is how empty they usually are. Queues vanish once you get away from the base-station chairlifts. Even these only clog up at weekends. This is largely because many, if not most, of the fashionable young Lebanese who flock to Mzaar to be seen, not to ski.
On Fridays and Saturdays the bars of the five-star InterContinental Hotel and nightclub-restaurants such as the Igloo and L’interdit fill with young Gulf Arabs and well-heeled Lebanese with ostentation, if not fornication, firmly in mind.
By Monday morning all have vanished and the slopes are left to little parties of expatriates and Lebanese families who have rented chalets for the season. It’s like having your own private ski resort – too good to be true.
Well, yes. There are a couple of caveats about skiing in Mzaar. The lifts and ski patrol are operated not by enthusiastic youngsters but by middle-aged men with moustaches and black leather jackets, who look suspiciously like demobbed members of the Christian Phalange. Most approach their job of ensuring your safety with heavy Middle Eastern fatalism, seldom bothering to emerge from their boxes or stop the lifts even when someone falls in the loading areas.
Some of the trails are not very well marked, which can be a problem when the weather closes down into white-out conditions. The ski map issued to customers is dated 1999 and badly needs upgrading.
Accommodation can also be tricky. Rooms at the InterContinental Mazar cost a minimum of $220 a night, and with Gulf Arabs taking out whole blocks of rooms for their families and servants, the management feels little need to offer bargains.
Skileb.com says three-star hotels can be had from $65 a night, but rooms are always in short supply at weekends and you have to book early.
There are also a lot of attractive Swiss-style chalets scattered around the picturesque resort, but traditionally many of them are rented out to families for the season…
Our one-bedroom apartment had two bathrooms, a large living room and a rather badly equipped kitchenette. It was clean, pleasant and well heated, and at $US100 (about $130) a night it would have been reasonable value had there been more than two of us. With the folding beds and mattresses provided, it could easily have slept two or three more.
The cost of the skiing compares well with Europe. Skis, poles and boots, though generally not the newest, can be had for $13 a day. At the weekend, a resort ski pass costs $38 a day, and less during the week.
But Lebanon’s almost European prices, combined with the cost of getting there and the relatively limited variety of runs and apres-ski entertainment, means it cannot yet really compete with the likes of France, Italy and Switzerland.
Nevertheless, the secret is getting out. Ronald Sayegh says his internet bookings are increasing each season. To expand the business, his company now sets up short, all-in packages for travellers passing through Lebanon on other business. Conversely, more dedicated skiers are also offered side trips to vibrant Beirut or to ancient attractions such as the Phoenician port of Byblos or the Greco-Roman ruins of Baalbek.
“We aren’t just selling skiing, we are selling Lebanon, too,” he says. “It’s something more exotic.”
GETTING THERE FROM AUSTRALIA
Emirates, Malaysia Airlines, Qantas and Gulf Air all fly to Beirut.
Australian passport holders can obtain a visa on arrival to Lebanon.
For more information see www.skileb.com