Travel agencies prepare for their biggest ski season yet

October 2009 – Sam Tarling and Filip Ericsson – The Daily Star

Faraya Mzaar Ski

BEIRUT: After an unprecedented influx of some one million tourists to Lebanon this summer, the holiday industry is eagerly anticipating a repeat performance for the imminent winter season. Alecos Loucaides of a Cyprus-based travel agency that specializes in ski trips to Lebanon and particularly to the Mzaar ski resort near Faraya, is optimistic. “I believe summer 2009 has the potential to be a very successful year for winter tourism in Lebanon,” he said.

Largely unknown to the public of Europe and North America but celebrated by ski-lovers in the Arab world, Lebanon boasts six ski resorts at heights of up to 3,000 meters. Its eminence as a leading regional ski destination placed it in the running as a host for the Asian Winter Olympics.

Ronald Sayegh of internet-based travel agency Grey Matter said that although Lebanon is not yet as popular a ski destination as the Alps, “ski tourism is slowly and surely improving.”

“As a company we re-invest the majority of our income into marketing abroad but the intervention of the government is necessary here on the global level to promote Lebanon as a ski destination.”

According to Byblos Bank, the number of incoming tourists to Lebanon totaled 1,284,945 in the first 8 months of 2009, constituting an increase of 45.1 percent from 885,729 tourists in the same period last year.

Arab tourists accounted for 42.1 percent of total visitors, followed by European visitors with 24.2 percent, Asia with 14.4 percent and the Americas with 13.2 percent. The Lebanese tourism industry is optimistic that the increase of tourist influx will perpetuate into the winter season.

“We expect a busy winter, at least like last season. Since is specialized in ski bookings, we started receiving early reservations for the New Year, January and February, which indicates that winter will hopefully attract skiers,” said Sayegh.

Sayegh said that the number of visitors has been increasing since they started their business, “and winter tourism is taking a share out of the big cake. The internet has greatly affected bookings since people always considered Lebanon to be a desert with no snow. This is why we always strive to maintain our ski web cams on Seeing is believing!”

Sayegh’s company, which represents around 30 hotels in Lebanon, takes bookings mainly from foreigner visitors.

“Skiers come from all over the world including South Africa and Australia … some travelers plan for a split stay between the resort and the coast,” he added. “What makes skiing in Lebanon special from other resorts is the “Swim and ski factor” that Westerners enjoy. Despite this being more myth than reality, Sayegh said: “This is surely possible during March and we had tourists who once did it.”

Sayegh said the health of the winter tourism industry in Lebanon stood at “five out of 10, since there is still big room for infrastructure development.” However, the agent added: “This has to go in parallel with a global winter tourism marketing strategy. [It’s an] egg and chicken situation!”

Loucaides, whilst also predicting a big year for his business noted that there are also obstacles facing winter tourism in Lebanon. “If there is something holding winter tourism back it is the much needed improvements that need to be made in Lebanon’s infrastructure.”

Shrinking snowlines are also something that trouble Loucaides. “I anticipate an increase on last years’ numbers with my only concern being the weather and when there will be enough snow for the ski resorts to start operating,” he said. “Climate change is obviously a big worry all over the world.

We have noticed that the last few years the snow has been a little late in coming. This is a big issue for ski resorts everywhere and maybe they need to be the first to go green, or at least greener. It is kind of bad to go to a ski resort and smell the fumes of diesel and see black smoke come out of generators.”