High expectations for a longer ski season in Lebanon
ZAAROUR, Lebanon - Snowstorms that hit Lebanon in January collapsed refugee tents and damaged agriculture but they were a blessing to the country’s ski resorts, where the winter sports season opened with a big splash of dazzling white.
With snow-blanketed mountain slopes and temperatures near freezing, ski lovers and businesses are hoping for a strong skiing season.
“We had a good start of the season this year,” said Alain Sawaya, marketing director of Zaarour Ski Club. “Nothing to compare with last year’s very short season that was ruined by warm weather and hardly lasted 13 days.”
“The longer the season is the better it is for the people who make a living out of the business and ski lovers are happier. Last season was almost nil in terms of snowfall. This year we opened the slopes on December 31 and so far the operation has been going on well,” Sawaya said.
At 35km from Beirut, Zaarour’s ski slopes on the eastern face of Mount Sannine in the Matn District are the closest to the capital.
With six ski runs of various levels of difficulty, including two for beginners, the site is good for amateurs as well as seasoned skiers.
“We aim to be a family friendly resort. Two slopes are specially designed for fun activities where children can go sledging and tubing. They can reach the top of the slopes on a ‘magic carpet’ and then slide down,” Sawaya said.
Beginners can learn to ski and snowboard at the Zaarour Club Ski School, run in collaboration with the French skiing school, Ecole du Ski Francais.
Mountain Express, Red Rock and La Cabane ski lifts across the mountain take skiers to the top of multilevel slopes that start at altitudes of 1,700 metres to more than 2,000 metres.
Non-skiers can enjoy the scenery on top of the highest slope by travelling in the Mountain Express chairlift to the panoramic peak 360. “The view from there is unbeatable. You can see the Mediterranean on one side, the Bekaa Valley on the other side, as well as the mountains of Matn and Keserwan regions,” Sawaya said.
The physically disabled will soon be able to experience the thrills of sliding down the Zaarour slopes with the introduction of handiski.
“It is a 50-kilogram chair on two ski boards and driven by a certified and experienced ‘pilot’,” Sawaya said. “We are giving the opportunity for the disabled who cannot go on the slopes to discover the joy of skiing. Those who cannot ski can also use it but the rides for the handicapped will be for free.”
Faraya Mzaar, an hour from Beirut, is another popular ski station. With 25 chairlifts, 40 slopes and 100 sq.km of terrain suitable for snowshoeing and cross-country skiing, it is known as the Middle East’s largest ski resort.
The resort partially opened December 21 but now all slopes are well blanketed and operational, said Atef Zgheib, head of operations at Mzaar Ski Resort.
“This year the season started early, before Christmas, and we had good snow. We hope the weather will continue to sustain the season,” Zgheib said.
While Lebanese skiers are seen less on the slopes of the costly sports, the number of foreign visitors has increased, Zgheib noted. “Those who used to ski five times a month are coming up once or twice now due to economic restraints but, on the other hand, we are seeing more foreigners from Gulf countries coming here because Lebanon is close by and suitable for short winter vacations,” he said.
“Many keep coming back and bring their friends along. They had the idea that Lebanon has desert and were pleasantly surprised,” Zgheib said.
Faraya Mzaar also boasts the longest zip line in the region, a glide of 1,000 metres over the slopes starting on Jabal Dib’s Peak at 2,250 metres.
In addition to Zaarour and Faraya Mzaar, Lebanon has three other well-equipped ski stations — Faqra, Laqlouq and the Cedars. The latter, in northern Lebanon and the farthest from Beirut (a 2-hour drive) has the most elevated slopes stretching between 2,095 and 2,850 metres.
The average cost of a day pass to the slopes is $35 on weekdays and $50 on weekends, excluding equipment rental. Shops for renting or buying ski equipment are available at all resorts.
Normally the ski season in Lebanon extends from December to March. In higher altitude resorts, such as the Cedars, the season may extend until May, depending on the weather.
There are high expectations for ski and tourism to thrive this season, though volatile factors, such as weather and political uncertainty, continue to challenge ski resorts’ performances.