Ecotourism, stunning nature lure visitors to Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley

New conservation laws, especially regarding strict construction regulations to safeguard green spaces, are being introduced by municipalities in rural areas.
Saturday 20/07/2019
Mount Hermon as seen from the Ammiq wetlands in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley.(AFP)
Mount Hermon as seen from the Ammiq wetlands in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley.(AFP)

TAANAYEL, Lebanon - Ecotourism is rising as a trend to attract tourists to Lebanon and encourage the country’s citizens to work on protecting their heritage, environment and ecology while helping sustain rural communities.

Projects geared to preserve the ecology and entice tourism have been popping up in various regions, a big challenge in Lebanon where concrete structures are mushrooming at the expense of green areas.

More people are showing interest in nature conservation because it is profitable and there is an economic need for it, said Chaker Noon, co-founder of Baldati, an ecology-oriented NGO.

“Hotels are becoming very expensive and require big investments, whereas ecological projects, such as camping sites, guest houses and ecolodges are simple and much more affordable to people willing to invest in tourism,” Noon said.

“In the past, regular tourism amounted to some 80% of tourism activity globally. Today, things have changed. People are returning to nature, looking for new experiences and new sensations.

“Lebanon has all the elements for developing an ecotourism industry, including a beautiful nature, creative entrepreneurship and good services. This has helped a lot in boosting ecotourism in addition to the fact that people are becoming more aware of environmental issues.”

New conservation laws, especially regarding strict construction regulations to safeguard green spaces, are being introduced by municipalities in rural areas, Noon noted.

“It is in the people’s interest to preserve nature. Having a piece of land next to a polluted river, for instance, won’t be useful. If a tree can be a source of income, why not sustain it? There is no harm in making profitable investments while preserving the ecology. Sustainability here serves the environment as well as the economy and the society,” Noon said.

While it is a fairly new trend in Lebanon, ecotourism started in Europe in the late 1970s as an alternative to mass tourism, which was damaging the environment and undermining local communities, traditions and cultural heritage.

A softer kind of tourism was needed, one that would protect an area’s natural and cultural legacy as well as educate the traveller and secure funds for ecological conservation, aiding economic development and empowering local communities.

“The lodges are built by local people in the traditional way, using materials that are found locally, such as wood, hay, mud and clay,” said Fadi Firzli, manager of Ecolodge in Taanayel, one of the oldest ecological accommodations mushrooming in the Bekaa Valley in eastern Lebanon.

“The aim was to rebuild typical houses of the Bekaa region, which are disappearing and being replaced by cement constructions that are harmful to the environment,” Firzli said. “To work with people and material in proximity, means fewer cars, less carbon and work as a community.  It is much cheaper, healthier and environment-friendly.”

Many say ecotourism in Lebanon started because it was a global trend that appealed to the Lebanese who like to stay in vogue. Nonetheless, the approach is attracting foreign and local visitors.

French-Japanese tourist Arkane Monavon, a guest at Ecolodge, said when she travels she always looks for authentic and traditional places that “have a soul” rather than regular hotels.

“Experiencing how people live and eat helps understand the history of a place. One can sleep in a concrete room anywhere but when you stay in places like this, it is a different experience. Your entire body can feel it,” Monavon said.

Salwa Nakhleh, a French-Lebanese raised in France, has visited Lebanon more than once but never stayed in an ecolodge before.

“I booked online after seeing the photos. I love nature and I saw that you sleep on mattresses on the floor in traditional mud houses and a village environment, so I thought that suits me and I was nicely surprised,” Nakhleh said.

She said she did not mind waking up to the sound of a rooster crowing. “When one chooses to stay in the countryside and in the nature one should expect the sounds of birds… It is much better than hearing the noise of cars and traffic,” she said.

Noon said he is confident ecotourism will grow in Lebanon as the Lebanese become aware of the advantages of preserving the environment — economically, socially and health wise.

“The young generation is increasingly appreciating the trend and they are more aware and better educated about the environment. The ecotourism business is attracting more investors who see in it a good source of income that doesn’t require investment of big money,” Noon said.

Greenery surrounding Ecolodge in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley.(Samar Kadi)
A place where visitors can rest at Ecolodge in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley. (Samar Kadi)(AFP)
A room with sleeping mattresses on the floor at Ecolodge.(Samar Kadi)