By Elinor Garely
It is wonderful to see what a $1 million in marketing dollars can do for a destination. As a result of the ad spend, in the first five months of 2004, Lebanon attracted 48 percent more tourists than in the same period of the previous year. According to the Minister of Tourism, Ali Hussein Abdullah, the most encouraging signal was that in April and May the number of European tourists exceeded the number of Arabs for the first time since the war. With tourism accounting for roughly 12 percent of the Gross Domestic Product, this industry appears to be a way for the country to escape from its economic crises.
Lebanon is a delightful destination, small enough to allow the most athletic to ski in the morning and swim in the afternoon, exciting enough for the party animal to gamble into the low digit morning hours, and charming enough for the café set to lounge the day away at sidewalk cafes, toking on tobacco water pipes, sipping light and fruity Lebanese wine, or savoring the sweet juice of fresh watermelons.
Staying at the best hotels, shopping in the trendiest markets, dancing in the late night clubs and gambling in the casino, rich Saudis and fashionable Europeans mix and mingle with local Lebanese, putting an international spin on this exotic Middle East destination.
Organizing Your Visit
There is much to see and do, and unless you are an expert NASCAR driver, you may not want to get behind the wheel of a car rental. The best of tour designers and guides can be found at the newly opened Thomas Cook office located in the Solidaire section of downtown Beirut. As a new destination, it is important to tap into the knowledge of the local experts, so a strong recommendation is to organize your travel time with Michele Atalah, a Thomas Cook travel counselor.
Sequence of Events
1. Lebanon 101. Select Lebanon for your introduction to the Middle East
2. Make airline reservations with United Air Lines and Middle East Airlines (MEA). United gets you from the USA to London and MEA delivers you in style and comfort (especially if you travel Business Class) to Beirut (plan on approximately 4 ½ hours)
3. Contact Michele in Beirut (firstname.lastname@example.org). Tell her the dates you plan to arrive and depart, the number of days you have available for sight-seeing, the MEA flights you are taking to/from Beirut, and your hotel budget (or branded preference).
4. Now you can sit back and leave everything else in the capable hands of the Thomas Cook experts.
Landing at the Airport
Look for an easy entry into Beirut. The baggage handlers are relatively swift, and before you know it you will be facing passport control. Depending on the purpose of your visit, you may have to buy a US$45 visa (check out this issue with Michele and the Lebanese consultant before you leave home). Show your passport to the airport officials and let them know the purpose of your visit, the number of days you plan to stay, the name of your hotel, and almost before you know it, and you are walking into the airport reception area.
Don’t stop to change currency – American dollars are used interchangeably with Lebanese lira. This perk alone is a major reason to visit this destination. No mathematic gymnastics as you try to figure out the “real” cost of the taxi, dinner or a new suit.
Now you can look for the pick-up from a driver who will have your name on a card and escort you to a car for transport to your hotel. Normally I would be upset with seeing my name flashed prominently in a busy airport. However, Lebanon really is safe, and traveling solo is not an issue that interests anyone. So – look for your name and tag along with the driver who will carry your luggage, and help you into the car. As you begin your short trip to downtown Beirut, take the time to look at the modern highway leading from the airport to downtown areas. Taxi drivers tend to be very proud of their city and don’t be surprised when your driver suggests a brief detour to show off the Solidaire section – complete with lovely outdoors cafes and nighttime luxury shopping.
World Class Accommodations
Regardless of your budget, you will find hotels at international standards. The Sheraton Coral Beach and the Movenpick are seaside luxury properties that are fabulous, but you will be equally happy with the Intercontinental, Marriott, and Radisson or regionally branded properties such as the Safir Heliopolitan or the Metropolitan. For business visits, the Monroe is the perfect selection.
After your flight, and some time zone changes, you will probably prefer food, a drink and sleep, so that you can get up early to meet Michele for your first day introduction to Lebanon.
At First Dawn
As you drive out of Beirut city limits, note the enormous size and number of yachts that dot the coastline, and the tall modern buildings that are crowding out the smaller, residential properties that defined old Beirut. Slowly, but surely, the older buildings are being replaced with new, and in many cases, very luxurious residential and commercial properties. Coops and private homes are available for purchase for multimillions of dollars. Remember that Lebanon is the playground for the Middle East, so life that is not permitted in one country, is not only allowed, but encouraged in Lebanon. As a result, private megabucks are pouring into the country, setting a very luxurious (and ultimately expensive) standard of living.
A must see area is the Cedars forest. Make a small donation as you enter – to help the country acquire more Cedar trees, for most of the trees were sacrificed many years ago, and there is a sincere effort to reforest the area. If the weather permits, walk through the trees, and look at the snow covered mountains. Shopping in the nearby souk is wonderful for Lebanese trinkets. Do not leave the area without buying some of the very large and colorful glass beads. Even if you have to restring them for necklaces and bracelets, you will marvel at the very low price demanded for a very “hot” look.
The next stop on the perfect itinerary is the Oyoun Orghouch, a small oasis in the mountains. Pass through the highest peak of Lebanon, The Black Peak, and note that it is covered with snow throughout the year. In the valley, appearing almost as an oasis is a natural lake surrounded by many local restaurants offering excellent Lebanese food, and featuring fresh fish caught daily from the fresh water. Lunching at the El Anhar will create cherished memories, for in addition to great food, diners get to watch local families (and this means children, grandchildren, uncles, aunts and cousins) coming together to enjoy the food, wine, beer, and especially their fondness for each other.
Another must for a sight-seeing day is Byblos, a city founded by the Phoenicians, and today boasts wonderful hotels, restaurants and souks along an incredibly beautiful beach front. A very convenient place to stay is Byblos sur Mer Hotel in the Old City, and almost adjacent is the world-famous Pepe Abed Restaurant that was a favorite of former president John F. Kennedy.
Dining and Entertainment
The best way to locate wonderful restaurants in Lebanon is to ask the folks that live there. Business Consultant Zizi Baaklini recommends the following restaurants for a lovely lunch, or delightful dinner. In the Solidaire area of downtown Beirut, for Italian you will be very happy at La Piazza, and Al Balad serves up generous portions of Lebanese cuisine (plan on $15 – $20 per person). For a very comfortable coffee shop visit Casper and Gambini’s and salads rule the menu at the House of Salads (($20 – $25) and DT ($25 – $30). For Japanese, try Shogun ($30), with Salmonetti and Sultan Ibrahim excellent choices for seafood ($30). Paul’s provides excellent French cuisine in the same price range. In Gemayzeh the local recommendation is for Central, with an international menu ($35), Pinochio for Italian ($25 – $30) and Balthus ($40).
Mario Karam, the Director of Sales at the Monroe Hotel recommends two of his favorite restaurants. The Diwan Al Akaber is located at the Markazia Monroe Suites Hotel in downtown Beirut. A traditional Lebanese dining spot, recipes date back over 400 years. Breakfasts start at US$5, with lunch and dinner in the $10 – $20 range (including a drink or two). For after dinner fun, he invites friends to the Peppermint Lounge at the Monroe Hotel. With a retro style lounge, it features contemporary music as well as jazz, and a live band on Thursday, Friday and Saturday evenings. For late-night dining to accompany your Lebanese wines, as well as local and international beverages, the Lounge offers guests a menu with entrees starting at $14.00 p/p. Still raring to go after 3 AM? Baaklini recommends the after-hours BO18 Club, located next to the Forum De Beirut.
For dining in Byblos Baaklini suggests Dar Al Azrak and Diwan al Mina. In the Batroun area, Bonita Bay, and Chez Sami in Jounieh receive an A+. Located on the waterfront, these terrific spots offer a wonderful view of the Mediterranean, in addition to excellent food and service. One of their many features is the Lebanese Mezza, along with a wide variety of seafood in the $25 – $35 p/p price range.
A little over an hour’s drive from Beirut, are the towns of Baal beck and Anjar. The area is noted for its archeological sites and wineries where tastings are available at Kefraya and Ksara. Stroll through the caves, lunch at the fashionable dining spots at Mahanna, located on the Bardawni River in Zahle, Mhanna and a spend a pleasant overnight in a bungalow at the West Bekaa Country Club- all of this makes a lovely getaway for the most restless and jaded traveler.
There are six ski resorts in Lebanon. They offer a wide variety of moods, altitudes, and natural settings. Don’t look for artificial snow; for there are no snowmaking facilities, however, there is plenty of natural snow for the most ardent skier.
Faraya – Mzaar
Only one hour from Beirut, Faraya – Mzaar (1850 to 2500 m) is the widest and most famous Lebanese resort, where skiers can have views on the Bekaa Valley. Popular with skiers and snowboarders, as well as snowmobilers, cross country skiers, and paragliders, Faraya is said to have the best equipment and is the most popular resort in Lebanon from late December through April. On a clear day, Beirut and the shimmering waters of the Mediterranean can be seen from the slopes. Some skiers have even spotted Cyprus.
* Other ski areas include: The Cedars A two hour drive brings you to wonderful skiing. At 1850 to 3087 m. The Cedars is the highest resort in the Middle East, and is located in the extension of the village and the forest of the Cedars.
* Faqra Club This private club is located on Mount Sannine (1800 to 2400 m). Located near the Faqra Roman ruins, this ski location a one hour journey from Beirut.
* Laqlouq Another nearby ski destination, Laqlouq (1750 to 2200 m) is a quick, one hour drive Beirut.
* Qanat Bakish At 1900 m. Qanat Bakish is in the extension of one of the oldest and most well preserved Lebanese villages, and requires a travel time of slightly more than one hour.
* Zaarour A private club where skiers view Mount Sanine (1700 to 2000 m).This ski area is the closest resort to Beirut (40 km) and can be reached in less than one hour from central Beirut.
As the Weather Gets Warmer
Hot air ballooning and paragliding are popular summertime sports in the Cedar Forest range. The area is considered to be the most panoramic and safest practice spot for these activities, when wind speeds and climatic conditions permit. From April through November, shooting, hiking, overnight camps, caving, horse back riding, all terrain vehicles (ATV or QUADS) and off roads motorbikes provide an active lifestyle in the region, and organized overnight rides on the highest peaks in the Middle East can be arranged for the adventure traveler.
In the summer, tourists and locals head for Edde Sands and the Voile Blue in Byblos, and the Istirahet Sour in Tyre. For a $10 – $20 entrance fee, you get to sun bathe on the sandy beach, and swim in the sea. If you are lucky, you’ll get invited to one of the many beach parties, and enjoy the area to its fullest.
The outlook for Lebanon’s tourism sector is very positive. This small but diverse country has a clear focus for developing tourism. From leisure and recreational activities, to international meetings and incentive travelers, Lebanon is likely to meet and even exceed your highest expectations.
Official tourism site for Lebanon