Jezzine: Lebanon’s untapped eco-tourism destination
JEZZINE, Lebanon - After being on the front line that demarcated Israeli-occupied southern Lebanon from the rest of the country for almost two decades, the scenic district of Jezzine is seeking to regain its status as a favourite summer retreat while becoming an attractive destination for ecotourists.
In the mountains east of the port city of Sidon, the district’s main town of Jezzine and its 27 villages span more than 241 sq.km at an average 900 metres above sea. The district boasts the largest forest in the Middle East — the Bkassine Pine Forest — and is well-known for its cutlery handicraft.
“After Israel’s withdrawal from Lebanon in 2000, life started returning to Jezzine,” said Khalil Harfouche, president of the Union of Jezzine Municipalities. “In 2010, the union devised a development strategy to reinvigorate the district. The focus point of the strategy was tourism, more specifically ecotourism versus massive tourism, which is very harmful.”
“We want to target tourists who appreciate heritage, nature and outdoor sports and activities… In short, those who respect ecology and enjoy nature without harming it,” Harfouche said.
Initiatives to capitalise on Jezzine’s tourism potential have been coming to fruition in the last few years. They revolve around responsible tourism that conserves the environment and improves the welfare of the local population.
Under the development strategy, Jezzine municipality outsourced infrastructure projects for revamping roads and renovating the old souk. It has built factories for processing and marketing local agricultural products such as olives, olive oil, pine nuts and honey.
Jezzine, the motherland of Carlos Slim, the Mexican-Lebanese magnate and philanthropist who is among the richest people in the world, was known in ancient times as the place where Phoenicians hid their treasures.
“The area has many grottos that were carved in the rock and where gold statues have been found. The Phoenicians from nearby Sidon used to bury their dead and their treasures in Jezzine,” Harfouche said.
The town is well-known for its cutlery and daggers, a craft that has enriched its reputation since 1770. The bone-handled cutlery inlaid with mother of pearl and copper and carved in the shape of a phoenix, has been presented by Lebanese presidents to dignitaries from all over the world.
“Cutlery sets were offered to Jacques Chirac, Charles de Gaulle, Pope Benedict XVI, Ronald Reagan, Mikhail Gorbachev, Nicolas Sarkozy and many others,” said Grace Rizk, manager of Haddad cutlery shop, the oldest in town.
“Mr Gorbachev appreciated the cutlery so much that he refused to use it and it is now displayed in the museum in Russia. It was done with ivory, which is now a banned material,” Rizk said.
The handicraft started with the Haddad family in the 18th century and has since been handed down over five generations. In the beginning, the colourful handles were made with buffalo and sheep horns, which were replaced by cellulose acetate, a material as sturdy as animal horn. There are seven cutlery workshops in Jezzine today. Sets comprising 80 pieces of cutlery cost $1,800-$2,000.
At 74 metres, Jezzine’s waterfalls are the tallest in Lebanon and have earned the town the title of “City of Falls.” Some 500 metres from the falls is a grotto that entered Lebanese history when Mount Lebanon’s Emir Fakhreddine II hid from the Ottomans there until he was captured and executed in 1635.
After years of unorganised and damaging visits, the Bkassine Pine Forest in the southern part of the district was transformed from untended woodland to an ecotourism landmark that fulfils both touristic and environmental demands.
One of the forest’s most important projects is La Maison de la Foret (The House of the Forest), an eco-retreat built with the help of the European Union.
“La Maison de la Foret occupies an area of 35,000 sq. metres of the 2.2 million sq. metre Bkassine Forest, which has some 120,000 pine trees 300-400 years old,” said the retreat’s operation manager Hussein Mansour.
The project includes 25 wood bungalows of different sizes that can accommodate 2-8 people and five rooms, all covered with red-tile roofs. It has spaces for sports and entertainment, including a 14-metre-high tower for climbing. The Bkassine Pine Forest includes hiking trails and pathways for pedestrians and bicycles.
“It has become an ecotourist attraction and an outlet for families. In summer it will receive many Lebanese expats as well as foreigners, whereas in winter it is mainly couples who come here,” Mansour said.
Prices of bungalows for two start at $125 in summer weekdays and $140 on weekends. In the low season, discounts vary between 40-50%.