Samar Kadi| The Daily Star

BEIRUT: Ecotourism, a new global trend that enables people to travel and explore nature while minimizing their impact on the environment, is a big challenge in Lebanon, a country where concrete structures are mushrooming at the expense of green areas at an alarming pace. Decades of conflicts, uncontrolled urbanization, mining and poor law enforcement, have deprived Lebanon of more than 35 percent of its existing green space over the past 40 years.

In response, nature lovers and private entrepreneurs are defiantly embarking on a mission to introduce the culture of ecotourism to Lebanon in order to raise awareness about the need for nature preservation.

“We are trying to promote tourism that respects and protects the nature in what is left of Lebanon’s green spaces,” said Gilbert Mukhaiber, a passionate hiker and mountaineer and an ecotourism engineer.

Ecotourism in Lebanon is currently generally limited to walks in nature reserves or hiking on mountain tracks, but the term encompasses much more than that. Local community empowerment, rural development, interaction with indigenous communities, sustainable food production and waste disposal, managing natural resources and the preservation of traditions and cultural heritage are all part and parcel of the ecotourism experience.

“What we have in Lebanon is more of a green tourism or adventurous tourism that is confined to natural reserves,” Mukhaiber said. Visitors to the reserves, including several forests containing Lebanon’s millennia-old cedar trees, pay entrance fees, which are used to employ staff to conserve the sites.

Ecotourism started in Europe in the late ’70s as an alternative to mass tourism, which was not only causing serious damage to the environment but also undermining local communities, traditions and cultural heritage.

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

But according to Mukhaiber, Lebanon never experienced mass tourism in the same way as places in Southeast Asia or parts of Africa, even before the 1975-1990 Civil War, which then had the effect of keeping visitors away from a country once described as the Switzerland of the Orient.

“Ecotourism in Lebanon started because it was a new global trend that appealed to the Lebanese who like to stay in vogue, and not as a reaction to harmful tourism,” Mukhaiber said.

Also the fast pace of daily life and changing lifestyles make ecotourism more appealing to the Lebanese people. “We all need an escape to nature after spending six days a week at work, glued behind a desk,” Mukhaiber said.

He explained that efforts to spread awareness about the importance and benefits of ecotourism were aimed more at the Lebanese than at foreign visitors, and were designed to encourage a type of internal tourism that is responsible and respectful of the country’s flora and fauna.

“Before having foreigners, we want to initiate the local tourists. In Lebanon, we don’t have the culture of nature preservation, but the damage done to the environment in recent decades has raised concerns and interested many in protecting our natural heritage,” Mukhaiber said.

The challenges facing ecotourism advocates, however, are wide ranging: from volatile security to economic and political shortcomings.

Insecurity in many rural areas where some reserves are located, including north Lebanon and the eastern Bekaa Valley, have made those sites off limit, and in even more remote areas, such as the stunning border lands of Akkar, spillover from the raging conflict in neighboring Syria has long made such places a no-go.

“Some regions which comprise the most untouched natural sites, such as Akkar and Dinnieh [in north Lebanon] and most of the Bekaa, don’t exist on our map today. It is too risky to take the people there, further restricting the accessible green areas,” Mukhaiber said.

Another challenge he and professional fellow ecotourism workers have to confront is the total lack of rules for this part of the tourism sector. “There are absolutely no laws to regulate this business,” he said.

“Anyone who feels like it can organize hiking or climbing trips and take people on sometimes risky and strenuous walks, without being himself a trained and certified guide or climber,” added Mukhaiber, who is a certified Alpine climber.

Despite the constraints, the trend is gaining popularity in Lebanon, and more are people showing interest in protecting the environment and investing in their own communities, according to Chaker Noon, co-founder of Baldati, an ecology-oriented NGO.

“There is a big market for ecotourism in the world, and people are aware that having something as trendy as ecotourism in Lebanon will attract a flow of tourists,” Noon said, noting that since the ’90s, there has been a gradual increase in the number of companies and NGOs that deal with ecotourism in Lebanon.

“For instance, since we started in 2002 as a hiking club, there were just two or three such clubs all over Lebanon. Nowadays the country is full of them,” Noon added.

In addition to exploring and preserving nature, ecotourism is about rural development and cultural conservation. “With each hiking trip, we foster strong relations between different individuals and institutions from various villages across Lebanon. In other words, our hikes are not just aimed to be sportive and touristic events, but are also sustainable development initiatives,” Noon said.

He said endeavors such as opening hiking trails in the steep mountainous area off the coastal town of Batroun, north of Beirut, helped bring in visitors and revive economic activity in the villages of the region.

Another example of empowerment of the rural community was the rehabilitation of an old house in the remote area of Hermel, in east Lebanon, which was turned into a guesthouse for hikers and backpackers, Mukhaiber said.

Local residents were given courses in hospitality and tourism; male residents were trained to become certified guides and women received “herb picking” and cooking classes using the herbs, Mukhaiber added.

Noon unveiled plans to offer ecotourism packages aimed at attracting foreigners and Lebanese, both residents and expatriates. “The market is there, the high supply in the natural reserves and beautiful landscapes of our country has always been there … and so has the demand for ecotourism,” he said.

As there is no state control over activities harming the environment, no public support for ecotourism endeavors, insecurity and poor awareness, Mukhaiber is less optimistic and foresees an uphill battle.

“Unfortunately, ecotourism is still a trend, not a culture in Lebanon, but that will not discourage nature lovers from spreading the culture of conservation and respect for the natural heritage,” Mukhaiber said.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on December 02, 2014, on page 2.
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