In “Exploring Nature, Making the Nation: The Spatial Politics of Ecotourism in Lebanon,” my article based on fieldwork conducted in summer 2013, I wrote about how ecotourism projects in Lebanon provide a window into understanding how nations are imagined and encountered in the context of past and ongoing conflict. In a volatile political landscape marked by a past protracted civil conflict (1975-1990), current armed clashes between factions supporting opposing sides fighting the war in Syria, and the humanitarian challenge created by the influx of one million UNHCR registered refugees fleeing this war, Lebanese ecotourism ventures “reterritorialize the nation,” I wrote, by imagining it as a space to be claimed, and consolidated, through the exploration of nature, rather than through the frame of a divided landscape.
In an interesting moment of ‘academia meets corporate public relations,’ a Ministry of Tourism campaign created by the global advertising giant M&C Saatchi seized on this same idea. Launched in 2014, the “Live Love Lebanon” print and video advertising campaign, which piggybacked on the “Live Love Beirut” crowd-sourced one that began in 2012 shows individuals engaged in naturalistic recreation as well as eating and drinking in various regions of the country. The images of skiing, surfing, and hiking among sheep (an outlier is a visual of laborers harvesting grapes at a vineyard) proclaim Lebanon to be an on-trend brand that represents an appealing lifestyle of eco-culinary-agro touristic leisure. But its text, “Lebanon As Not Seen On TV: be your country’s ambassador show everyone the Lebanon you love” – along with the accompanying hashtag, Facebook page, and app inviting users to share their photos and experiences – does something more than market Lebanon’s identity as a touristic commodity, it is an assertive nationalism meant to disrupt images of a war-torn and concrete, urban Lebanon.
Since the war erupted in neighboring Syria, tourism in Lebanon has seen a dramatic decline. The decrease in the number of tourists from Gulf countries who had, for more than a decade, made up the lion’s share of tourists, has radically impacted the country’s tourism economy. Critical of the Lebanese state’s position in the Syrian crisis—which is officially neutral—and hostile toward Lebanon’s most formidable political and military player, Hezbollah, which is fighting in Syria alongside the forces backing President Assad’s regime, the anti-Assad GCC countries introduced travel warnings and bans in 2013 to discourage and prevent their citizens from going to Lebanon. Cities and towns that have been traditionally reliant on Gulf tourists, such as those situated in summer resort settings in the mountains, have been hit the hardest. But the downturn in these seasonal visitors from the Gulf, whose lodging patterns typically involved renting a large apartment that could accommodate family and staff for stays of one month or longer, has also led to a restructuring of the tourism market as forms of eco, agro, and culinary tourism focused around a discovery of the country’s natural, historical, and cultural features have been developed to attract Lebanese, both local and visiting returnees, seeking short-term weekend getaways with restaurants and family-friendly leisure activities on site.
Since I conducted my research four years ago, these types of tourist sites have multiplied, appearing in new regions and settings. In Jezzine, for example, a town in the south set amid pine forests, La Maison de la Forêt originally opened in 2013 as an ecotourism venue (hiking, biking, and local foods marketplace) through a partnership between the local municipality and the EU but was then redeveloped – and reconceived – by a private investment firm and reopened a year later as a getaway offering “quality food and rustic accommodations” along with fee-based outdoor activities for adults and children such as hiking, climbing walls, and canyon rappelling. The restaurant is operated by Tawlet, a Beirut foodie hotspot I wrote about in my article that features Lebanese homecooking and regional specialities and is run by the same group that created Beirut’s first farmers’ market. Simpler overnight operations and weekend festivals are also flourishing.
Through Facebook you can now book one of the recently opened Saghbine bungalows, which is in the Bekaa Valley in the eastern part of the country that borders Syria. And in the Shouf mountain village of Chebanieh, a summer festival in a forest reserve I attended in August 2017 sought to attract families in the daytime – with its jumping inflatables – and in the evening became an outdoor all-night party/campsite for young people. The price point for the daytime experiences was not cheap – 5000LL (about $3.30 USD) admission for adults and children of any age and additional fees for each activity one’s child then pleaded to participate in once admitted. The continued expansion of ecotourism destinations that offer outdoor activities for middle class and affluent families is, to my mind – as a parent of young children who regularly visits the country – a game changer. In Beirut and beyond, there are very few outdoor and green spaces where children can run and play safely, and the indoor play areas that offer this come at a significant cost. Many parents who can afford to spend $20 USD for their child to ride mechanical toys or play arcade games, for instance, would likely prefer to spend the same or more to have them engaged in outdoor physical activity in the fresh air at an ecotourism venue even if this means a lengthy trip in the car. In this way, though they are most certainly pay-to-play, these sites operate as – even substitute for – parks.
When I visited Deir Taanayel, a monastery, working dairy farm, and ecotourism destination in the Bekaa Valley in August 2017, the admission fee had doubled since 2013 from 1,000LL (about US$0.70) to 2000LL but little else had changed. The place was doing as brisk a business with mainly Lebanese school groups, couples, families, and solo visitors enjoying their walks and rides – bike rentals and horse rides cost extra – around the picturesque landscape: a tree-lined path flanked by grape fields and mountain views that leads to and beyond a small lake. When I asked a worker at the site about whether or not the number of visitors has been impacted by what I only referred to in Arabic as “the situation” but which meant the challenges, in the Bekaa specifically, of hosting hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees living in nearby informal settlements, he answered that they had been affected only a little. The guy who rented me and my daughter bikes answered similarly, “in spite of the situation, people continue to come,” he said. While Taanyel’s geography may turn off people from visiting, I have to wonder if its low cost might make up for some of these lost visitors. Four years after my research on the topic, ecotourism in Lebanon has become increasingly robust and its class barriers unchanged. I hope for the development of destinations where more Lebanese can ‘live and love’ Lebanon.