Responsible tourism in Lebanon

In the 19th century, Baalbek’s impressive Roman ruins were one of the most photographed sites in the Middle East. This is no longer the case. “Apart from our group there was only six other people there.” Simone, part of our Travel Team, went to Lebanon in autumn 2019, and practically had the Temple of Jupiter to herself.

In the absence of other big industries, Lebanon really needs tourism. “It’s the most important thing we have in Lebanon,” Dan Nader, who operates trips on behalf of our specialist holiday supplier Explore, has run a responsible tourism programme in the country for 25 years. He knows more than most how important foreign visitors are. “We’re not a petrol country, we have no important industry, it’s a small nation, so our agriculture is barely enough to feed us, let alone anyone else. Tourism is our most important industry now.”

As the war in Syria raged on, international arrivals plummeted – by as much as 24 percent in a single year in 2011. Enormous sites like Baalbek, which once captivated 19th century French visitors like Flaubert and Proust, attract far fewer admirers now. “Most places are quiet,” Dan says, “In the very high season we might meet a group or two in Baalbek, but that’s it.”

Yet ask seasoned travellers where they want to go, and Lebanon always seems to be on the list. Despite, or perhaps because of, its turbulent past, people are desperate to visit. Tours routinely sell out. The tourism sector is Lebanon’s fastest growing industry. As many reasons as there seem to be not to go, like shifting no-go areas, and the possibility of protests – there are many reasons more to visit.

One such reason is great responsible tourism. Dan Nader works with CIFA (Centre pour l’insertion par la formation et l’activité) a charity that has trained up hundreds of unemployed Lebanese people to work as guides. In 2019 year it trained 25 new guides. Its work has helped places like Baalbek, where some hotels were on the brink of closure, find their feet again: “The hotel we are using almost closed but the fact that we bring people there has meant that they recently employed four other people from Baalbek,” he says. The charity also gives start-up funds to help people set up their own homestays.

Tourism – especially, Dan admits, complaints from European tourists – is also putting pressure on Lebanon’s notorious rubbish problem. The country has very limited landfill and refuse ends up burnt, in the sea, or strewn along the roadside. “We tell people that European tourists are interested in the environment,” Dan says. If tourists don’t like seeing waste in the streets, the waste begins to be cleared.

The Lebanese people are no stranger to revolution and change – and the responsible tourism revolution is a welcome one. Take organic food: in the Bekaa Valley, some of our tours make a stop at Tawlet Ammiq, a farmers’ kitchen. Here they can lunch in a state-of-the-art eco restaurant which supports small-scale producers. Even the Minister for Tourism has taken note. CIFA have worked with the Ministry of Tourism – something that would have been unheard of when the charity began in the nineties. “When we started here it was very difficult to explain our values,” Dan says, “but since then the whole county has changed a lot.” Ministry aside, it’s grass roots initiatives in Lebanon – whether they be recycling initiatives or farmers’ kitchens – which suggest that ordinary people are keen to show visitors a changing state.

People & culture

Refugees

Lebanon’s population is small and is thus subject to great change – and the irregular graph of the last century’s population is testament to successive waves of immigration and emigration. Whilst there are approximately 6.8 million people in the country, 1.5 million of them are thought to be Syrian refugees – most of whom arrived within the last decade. Many still live in refugee camps close to the borders. They join an existing population of Palestinian refugees.

You only have to look a few decades in the past to see a completely different population trend in Lebanon: between 1975 and 1990, hundreds of thousands of Lebanese people fled the country during the civil war. Today there is a large Lebanese diaspora around the world – particularly in South America. Lebanon’s acceptance of refugees is remarkable – the equivalent of the UK letting in some 12 million extra people – but it comes at a time of worsening economic crisis.

What you can do:
Official travel advice tells tourists not to visit Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon – this is because of the potential for armed conflict and extremist groups. Syrian refugee camps are a no-go, too, and tour operators are told to stay away.

Protests

The people have spoken. In 2019, Lebanese people protested the corrupt political system that has neglected basic services in the country and plunged it into economic crisis. Lebanon is the world’s third-largest borrower. According to the World Bank, an estimated 30% of Lebanese people live in poverty, some 250,000 have become unemployed since the Syrian crisis – and the middle classes are struggling, too. Protests were peaceful, but widespread and generally popular. People took to social media to show sympathetic armed forces holding hands and even hugging protestors. Whilst the Green Line in Beirut is testament to a country divided on religious lines, these protests were non-sectarian, and showed a population with a great appetite for social justice. “Lebanon is experiencing a social revolution” leading Middle East news website Al Jazeera said.

What you can do:
Speak to people. “We looked different, and got a few stares, but as soon as you said hello, people spoke to us,” Simone says. These protests shouldn’t put off tourists – if your operator is still running your trip, and FCO says go ahead, you shouldn’t be worried about travelling.

Wildlife & environment

Litter

In 2015, Lebanon was in the middle of a refuse crisis. The government closed one of the country’s major landfill sites. The streets quickly filled with rubbish. Suddenly, a fragile and at-capacity system was revealed. Some 85% of Lebanon’s rubbish still goes to landfill, some is burnt – and a shocking amount ends up in the sea. “The system is not well managed yet – so groups may find garbage in nature and in villages,” Dan says. “It’s getting better. Garbage is being removed from the roads, but after this step the problem is still the same. We don’t have enough places to treat it. Sometimes it’s put in the sea.”

What can you do:
Grass roots initiatives like Recycle Beirut are doing a great deal of clear up in the capital by sending material to Beirut’s little-known recycling plant. Their ‘green economy’ model also provides jobs for Beirut’s many refugees. You can help out by keeping your own plastic waste to a minimum – something that’s admittedly hard when the operators advise against drinking the tap water, so bring a reusable water bottle with a filter.

Cedars

The cedars of Lebanon are magnificent, but also faintly tragic. They’re all that’s left of a forest that once clad the whole country. Cedar wood is beautiful – an egg-yolk yellow inside, and wonderfully fragrant. It rarely rots, making it excellent for construction. Straight, nearly knot-free branches made excellent masts for Phoenician’s busy shipbuilders, and they were great for temple construction. You get the picture: the history of the cedars is a 5,000 year history of deforestation for human enterprise – after all, Lebanon ranks as the world’s eighth most densely populated nation.
Things will get worse for the cedars as climate change continues: in 2019, forest fires in the Chouf region did yet more damage. Two decades ago such fires were ‘unthinkable’ and unprecedented. The cedar groves are now protected, their ranks bolstered by 24 other forest species, like kermes oak and calabrian, stone and Aleppo pines. Visiting is a tame experience – there’s a series of short walks around the trees. Like most national emblems, you’ll see more cedars printed on the banknotes than you likely will in the wild.
What you can do:
Between four and eight percent of Lebanese territory is now protected park, and parking fees and donations by visitors help protect the area. An €150 donation to Cedars Forever will plant your own little cedar sapling, complete with a plaque.
Written by Eloise Barker
Photo credits: [Page banner: Rain Rannu] [Syrian refugees: EU Civil Protection and Humanitarian Aid] [Cedar: Neosnaps]
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