The lost tourists of Lebanon’s 'red zone'
With the uprising in Syria, some of the most popular tourism destinations in Lebanon are struggling to attract visitors
The temple of Bacchus (MEE/James Haines-Young)
Published date: 27 June 2015 10:42 UTC | Last update: 4 years 7 months ago
The Temple of Bacchus sits regally at the centre of world-renowned ruins, as the iconic six remaining columns of the Temple of Jupiter tower majestically over the site, punctuated by the dramatic snowcapped Anti-Lebanon mountain range bordering Syria in the distance.
With no ropes or impenetrable glass barriers in sight, it is possible to touch the broken tops of columns that lie festooned throughout the site, tracing your finger along the engravings that were etched centuries ago.
However, there are no tourists at the archaeological site - which, in addition to being a UNESCO World Heritage Site, boasts some of the largest Roman ruins in the world. Once one of the most popular tourism destinations in Lebanon, the uprising in Syria - and the ensuing travel warnings from the United States and UK that categorised Baalbek as in the “red” or most dangerous zone due to its proximity to the border - has seen tourism grind to a screeching halt.
As a result, the local economy - which once thrived on local and international tourists visiting the ruins, eating at traditional restaurants and staying overnight at hotels - has suffered.
“I can’t believe I’m seeing this,” a cafe owner in the old souk that surrounds the ruins told Middle East Eye, fighting back tears of happiness from seeing a visitor. “It’s so nice to see people again.”
Eating at a local restaurant, and drinking tea or coffee in one of the many cafes of the souk used to be an essential part of touring Baalbek - as tourists gathered to pose for photos or purchase souvenirs. However, now most of the traditional blue doors are closed, the windows shuttered. A few shopkeepers stand idly by, sipping coffee in an empty street and waiting for the increasingly rare tourist to be persuaded into buying a Corinthian column keychain or kitschy snow globe of the Temple of Bacchus.
Baalbek was not always like this. Travel back in time 50 or 60 years to the era known as Lebanon’s “Golden Age” and the town was bustling with tourists from around the world. Lured by the cosmopolitan nature of Beirut - at that time enjoying its reputation as the “Paris of the Middle East” - Baalbek was a natural destination for curious travellers wishing to explore the rich archive of history that the rest of the country had to offer.
Baalbek was its own cultural centre as well; during the summer, the Baalbek International Music Festival hosted worldwide sensations from Egypt’s Um Khalthoum to the US's Ella Fitzgerald, and of course, Lebanon’s iconic Fairouz. The Temple of Bacchus was their stage, the ruins of Baalbek their amphitheatre.
Like many other touristic sites in Lebanon, Baalbek's tourism economy was frozen for 15 years during and immediately following the civil war - though it enjoyed a prosperous cultural revival between the civil war and the Israel-Lebanon War in 2006. However, it was the conflict in Syria - and the perceived threat of violence spilling over the border at any moment - that made the once-thriving tourism attraction die down to only a handful of visitors per day.
Economics of tourism
Lebanon’s economy as a whole has been devastated by the absence of tourists, which, before the beginning of the Syrian Civil War was 22 percent of the country’s GDP. Although tourism numbers are up this quarter for the first time in four years, due to a particularly robust skiing season, it is not enough to turn around the deficit that the war in Syria - and the end of regional tourism - has had on Lebanon.
To respond to the crisis, Lebanese Tourism Minister Michel Pharaon has launched several initiatives, including the #LiveLoveLebanon public relations campaign that aims to counter the image of Lebanon in the international media by marketing the country as a destination for recreational tourism, advertising activities like skiing in the winter and hiking and wine tasting in the summer.
Earlier this month, another initiative with the Arab Council of Tourism nominated the ancient city of Byblos - just under 40 kilometres up the coast from Beirut - to be the Arab Tourism Capital of 2016.
“To be able to work in the interest of Jbeil [the Arabic name for Byblos] and the tourism sector in Lebanon in 2016, we pray that the minimum level of stability and political consensus are preserved,” Pharaon said in a statement.
However, little if any of these efforts have benefitted the “red zone” - areas of the country like Baalbek and the rest of the Bekaa Valley to the east, or Tripoli and the Akkar region to the north. Though these regions boast the breathtaking natural beauty and unrivaled preservation of ancient history that has drawn tourists to the Middle East for decades, their proximity to the Syrian border - and perceived proximity to the conflict, whether because of sectarian clashes as seen in Tripoli, or the overwhelming presence of Syrian refugees in the Bekaa Valley - has greatly discouraged visitors, both international and Lebanese, from visiting or viewing these regions as tourism destinations.
“Media has a huge role to play in this, even local media,” Zeinab Jeambey, project coordinator and communication manager for the Umayyad Project and manager for the Beirut-based NGO Food Heritage Foundation, told Middle East Eye. “We need more articles, more documentaries and more visits [to these region] to promote the safety of these regions and their touristic potential in the eye of locals and foreigners alike.”
Thinking outside the box
In the absence of outside investment in the tourism economy of these regions, some locally based independent tourism operators have taken matters into their own hands. One example is Mira Minkara, a Tripoli native who gives independent, guided tours of the Old City, International Exhibition Fair and the seaside of Tripoli.
“My idea came when there were clashes in Tripoli between Jabal Mohsen and Tabbaneh,” Mira Minkara told MEE.
Situated along the coast of northern Lebanon, Tripoli is Lebanon’s second-largest city - and renowned throughout the Arab world for its Mamluk architecture and historical significance due to its strategic location during the Crusader era.
However, its reputation has been marred in recent years by a recurring conflict between the Sunni Muslims of Bab el-Tabbaneh and the Alawite Muslims of Jabal Mohsen, a rivalry that dates back to the Lebanese Civil War. As the fighting in Syria intensified, and several pro- and anti-regime fighters crossed the border to fight the war, the tensions between the two neighbourhoods once again intensified, echoing the violence across the border.
Like Baalbek, Tripoli is categorised in the “red zone” by the US State Department and UK Foreign Office [though it has recently been downgraded to "orange"] - which warn citizens against any travel to the region whatsoever, largely due to these clashes.
“I was really upset that something might happen in the old city,” Minkara continued. “I heard about one rocket that fell into the courtyard of a mosque and I freaked out.”
After the Lebanese army implemented a security plan in April 2014 that placed both neighbourhoods under army control, Minkara decided that the situation was calm enough to combine her knowledge and love of Tripoli and a diploma in tourism by taking foreign and local tourists on guided tours of the Old City and other attractions around Tripoli. She wanted to show them a side of Tripoli that they might not see in the media.
Although her main clientele are foreign journalists and NGO workers - in Minkara’s words “Lebanon is not receiving many tourists these days,” Minkara has nonetheless created a thriving business, with tours filling up almost every weekend.
“Of course, there are people who are still scared to go, but my tours are filling up,” she said, speaking to the fear often associated with Tripoli by both locals and foreigners. Although she is more forgiving with foreigners, she is frustrated by Lebanese perceptions of Tripoli.
“My problem with the Lebanese is that they do not make an effort to know more before going to a place - they judge it before knowing it,” she said. “People have this prejudice about Tripoli, that it’s a war zone. It’s the second largest city in Lebanon! People live here - and there haven’t been clashes for almost a year.”
Jeambey faces similar challenges, in both her position at the Umayyad Project, which proposes cultural tourism packages based on the Umayyad heritage in Baalbek and Anjar, and the Food Heritage Foundation, where she coordinates works on Darb el Karam, which takes visitors on food-oriented trips in the West Bekaa and Chouf regions of Lebanon.
“Because of the security situation, we are tapping into local tourists - and the local tourists who are really going around the country right now are hikers and nature lovers, i.e. adventurous in spirit,” she told MEE.
Darb el Karam is situated in the western part of the Bekaa Valley bordering the Qaraoun Lake, which, unlike the northern Bekaa, has seen no violence - however Jeambey claims that even mentioning the name Bekaa carries a certain stigma - even amongst the most adventurous of local tourists.
“I know from the nature tour operators that their groups are divided in half the minute they propose a package in the Bekaa Valley,” she said.
For those willing to come, however, Darb el Karam - which translates to “Trail of Generosity” - promises tours of some of the most picturesque villages, and encounters with local farmers and food producers to discover the origins of certain ingredients and the cultural history of traditional dishes. In addition to being an educational and alternative experience for the tourist, the initiative also diversifies the income of the hosts through tourism.
“West Bekaa has a lot of touristic potential,” Jeambey continued. “It is a region that is not tapped into yet - you don’t see anarchic constructions all over the place. We are hoping to make people aware of the richness that their region has before development gets in and we lose this amazing scenery."