Jan 2007 – Middle East Times
Up until the first few days into 2007, when cloud-cover finally formed over Europe’s highest peaks, heralding long-anticipated flurries of the “white stuff,” the warmest Alpine winter on record had seen skiers, snowboarders, and hotel proprietors throughout Europe’s ski resorts sick with worry.
With world cup races canceled in Val d’Isere, ski holidays postponed by the hundred, and snow cannons working overtime – garnering warnings from environmentalists – snow finally arrived as a welcome relief, though falling so quickly it also raised avalanche warnings, particularly for off-piste skiers.
But in the Middle East, thousands of kilometers from the more traditional skiing bastions of Austria, Switzerland, Italy, and France, many of the international circuit’s lesser-known ski resorts have been doing brisk business, largely unaffected by the specter of climate change haunting Europe.
Northern Mount Hermon, situated in the contested Golan Heights, opened for the season January 8. According to resort manager Menachem Baruch, some 70 centimeters (about 28 inches) of snow had fallen on the higher peaks since the beginning of the year with 45 centimeters on the lower slopes.
“For us, it’s completely normal to open the resort in mid-January; we’re used to the snow coming in a bit later than it does in Europe,” says Baruch, “so we haven’t been worried about a lack of it.” Moreover, early indications suggest that the resort has not been affected by last summer’s war against Lebanon, since the resort’s clientele is comprised almost entirely of local visitors.
“We have around 700 to 800 skiers today,” reports Baruch, “About normal for the first days of the season, though on a busy day this rises to about 2,000.” He pointed out that, “The resort opened to non-skiing visitors last week, for sledding and chairlifts to the top, and visitor numbers appear to be the same as usual,” adding “I hope we’ll have a good season here.”
With only 45 to 60 ski days per year, the resort’s season is short, but with the average daily price for skiing, excluding lessons, coming in at roughly NIS400 (around $95), it remains lucrative for its operators.
Meanwhile, a short hop across the Mediterranean to Turkey, there are roughly a dozen operating ski resorts scattered across the country. They attract mostly local skiers, particularly to the well-developed Bursa region, and to Erzurum, where the high altitude and rugged terrain makes for some of the best snow cover and most challenging skiing in the country.
A typical Erzurum ski-season lasts some 150 days per year, and weekends see resorts filled with skiers bussed and flown in from big cities such as Istanbul and Ankara. With five-star hotels offering ski packages at prices often hundreds of dollars lower than in Alpine resorts, European visitors – many of whom had already switched to Bulgaria’s cheaper resorts years ago and now keen to find their way further east – are on the increase.
In stark contrast to such bustling business, however, Lebanon has had its six major ski resorts suffer a dearth of foreign vacationers, not through lack of snow, but as a result of the 2006 hostilities with neighboring Israel.
“Business has been greatly affected,” says Ronald Sayegh, founder and general manager of the Lebanese skiing holiday agency SKILEB.com (www.skileb.com). “We’re suffering from 60 percent fewer bookings. The majority now are expat-Lebanese, whereas normally the majority is European and Arab,” he adds.
Nevertheless, he notes, the company has received some bookings from intrepid European skiers who decided to visit Lebanon due to the late snowfalls in the Alps. Fortunately, snow is not something Lebanon is short of, and as Sayegh points out, “The slopes opened nearly the same days as last year.”
Up until this season, Lebanon’s ski industry, like that of Turkey, has been increasingly attracting foreign skiers. “It has lower prices than Europe,” explains Sayegh, “and the appeal of being a new destination. You can ski in the morning and swim in the Mediterranean in the afternoon.” Sayegh adds that another selling point for the country’s resorts is that they are “friendly, visitors get a warm welcome, with moderate weather, and [Lebanon] has also been attracting a growing number of [skiing enthusiast] foreigners working in the Gulf States.”
The Mzaar (ex Faraya-Mzaar) in particular, at an elevation of 2,438 meters above sea level (8,000 feet) and with chic five-star facilities attracting Beirut’s elite from the capital just 50 kilometers (around 31 miles) away, is – during good years, at least – a hit with the skiing and snowboarding masses. Overall, Sayegh hopes that, despite the poor turnout so far this season, Lebanon’s beleaguered ski industry, like its tourist industry in general, will be back on its feet – or its skis, for that matter – in the near future.
Next door, too, Syria is also in the process of taking up the ski challenge. In 2006, Syrian investment authority director, Mustafa Kafri, unveiled plans for a $16 billion ski resort, to be built on the eastern and northern slopes of Mount Hermon. Financed by a consortium of Saudi, Kuwaiti, and Syrian investors, with the support of the Syrian government, the project would yield yet more opportunity for the winter sports enthusiast to venture out of familiar territory.
But for those without time to spare during the winter months, or in search of the ultimate blend of snow and sun, there is a final Middle Eastern ski destination, guaranteeing snow year-round: Dubai.
Visitors can head for Ski Dubai in the Dubai Emirates Mall, which offers enthusiasts the third largest indoor ski resort in the world, complete with 5,443 kilograms (6,000 tons) of snow. In addition to this, 2008 will see the completion of a second artificial ski resort: Dubai Sunny Mountain Ski Dome, currently in production at a cost of more than AED1 billion (roughly $272 million) and touted to be the biggest free-standing dome in the world.
With diverse attractions including ice sculptures, snow castles, polar bears, and a “penguinarium,” Dubai’s slopes are thus looking to attract skiers keen on improving their tan in the morning, then tackling an artificial black run in the afternoon. Soon, with a massive revolving ski slope high on the list of attractions, Sunny Mountain will be doing its part to enrich the country’s ski offerings, with a definitely unique – if somewhat peculiar – experience, that most ordinary slopes could never hope to top.