Lebanon: A unique ski destination in the Arab world
Faraya-Mzaar, Lebanon - Ski and winter sports lovers from the Middle East do not need to travel far to reach high-perched, well-groomed and modernly equipped ski slopes with far-reaching views across mountains and valleys as Lebanon is a relatively undiscovered ski destination and home to six quality resorts.
As the only Arab country with a significant winter tourism industry, Lebanon is seeking to capitalise on its unique mix of sun and snow by expanding ski facilities aimed at attracting tourists from an increasing variety of countries.
The country’s ski resorts are well-equipped and within driving distance from main hubs on the coast. With snow fit for skiing from December until April, hopes of skiing in the morning and plunging into the Mediterranean in the afternoon can be easily realised.
The oldest and highest ski resort lies in the north near the Cedars of God at an altitude of 1,850-3,087 metres. It is also, at 120km, the furthest from Beirut.
Faraya-Mzaar, 57km north-east of Beirut, is Lebanon’s largest and most popular ski resort. It boasts 20 lifts and 80km of slopes with levels of difficulties from easy to advanced.
“The season starts early December and ends late March or early April generally. Two years ago the resort opened only for three days, when Lebanon witnessed one of its warmest winters to date,” said resort manager Christian Rizk. “It was a disaster for the country’s winter sports lovers and for business, though it is very rare.”
The 2015-16 season started well with a good amount of snowfall. “It is an average year in terms of occupancy. Yesterday — a weekday — we had 2,500 skiers on the slopes but the number can reach up to 5,000 or 6,000 on weekend days,” Rizk noted.
Winter tourism attracts much of Lebanon’s diaspora, especially expatriates from the Gulf and Africa, and the slopes are quite popular with tourists from Gulf Cooperation Council countries, Europe and the United States.
“In previous years, we had a good number of skiers coming from abroad, especially from the Gulf countries,” Rizk said. “But nowadays the Lebanese nationals represent around 95% of our clientele with the rest being foreigners living in the country.”
A combination of political instability, economic strains and volatile security caused by the Syrian refugee crisis and the spillover of the conflict in Syria have kept many Arab and foreign tourists away from Lebanon the past few years.
Rizk revealed plans to expand the ski terrain between 1,850-2,500 metres above sea level, to higher altitudes. “Our resort is very well-equipped. It also has two ambulances, two doctors and 35 trackers on standby and on the slopes at all time for emergencies,” he said. “We had planned for higher slopes but the project is on hold because of the (political) situation in the country.”
Zaarour Club, the closest ski resort to Beirut, offers many outdoor winter activities in addition to its six well-groomed, north-facing ski runs, offering an excellent quality of snow with a panoramic view spanning the Valley of the Skulls and Mount Sannine.
“The location of Zaarour is an advantage. In half an hour, you can travel from Beirut to the slopes and enjoy the skiing,” noted the club’s public relations person Michel Atik.
Since its renovation two years ago, Zaarour is equipped with six ski slopes, snowboard space, a snow park and a natural lake supplied by springs in the mountain, in addition to a 16-suite hotel. For cross-country skiers, Zaarour offers a 4km track on the Sannine mountain.
“It is the only place in the Middle East where we can make snow from water in the lake using snow cannons to keep the layer of snow fit for skiing at the departure level, which is the lower level of the slope at 1,650 metres,” Atik explained.
“When you come here you would think yourself in a ski resort in Switzerland.”
Lebanon’s generally lower prices than skiing destinations in Europe could propel the country’s skiing industry. An adult ticket to the full set of Mzaar slopes costs $30 on weekdays and $60 on weekends. It is even less at Zaarour: $50 for a full-day adult pass. Rental of ski equipment is available at sports shops in both resorts at the average cost of $40 per day.
Apart from Alpine skiing, winter activities including snowmobiling and snowshoeing are gaining popularity in Lebanon. The Chouf Cedars Nature Reserve is a great location for snowshoeing at an average of 2,000 metres above sea level. Visitors have the possibility to rent snowshoes and hire a guide to visit the reserve on different trails that vary in difficulty.
One can start walking at the entrance of the reserve and reach a magnificent part of the forest called ghabat al amir (the emir’s forest) where a Lebanese emir camped in the past.
Traditionally a summer destination, Lebanon is building its reputation as a winter destination through promotion of its growing ski facilities.
“I come during week days, as it is cheaper, less crowded and I can enjoy more the slopes and wait less at the ski lifts,” said Hassan Hajjar, a ski enthusiast and regular client of Mzaar resort.
“It is the best place to ski,” Hajjar boasted.