Mohammed Zaatari| The Daily Star

SIDON, Lebanon: A few hundred meters off the coast of Sidon, facing the city’s port and sea castle, lies the island of Al-Zira. A campaign kicked off this month to promote conservation of the historic landmark. The “Friends of Zira and Sidon’s Beach” organization took the first steps in their initiative to preserve the island on World Environment Day.

Al-Zira was a landmark of ancient Sidon, and with the onset of summer, locals visit the island in numbers. But organizers say there is a lack of awareness about the need to keep it clean, apathy that they are trying to reverse with the new initiative.

They say the campaign will continue until the island can be restored to a status befitting its role as a heritage site and a vital tourist hub for the city.

The first stages of the campaign are already underway. Members of the organization cleaned trash, fixed beach umbrellas, distributed waste containers and marked off a safe zone for swimmers to protect them from boats and jet skis.

They have also posted signs asking visitors to the island to keep it clean and respect public safety.

“There’s a huge interaction by the people and civil society,” said Kamel Kozbar, the organization’s president. “Our hands are extended to Sidon’s civil society groups to help make Al-Zira prettier, and have it become an outlet for all … visitors and Sidon citizens.”

The “Friends of Zira and Sidon’s Beach” organization was founded last month. The organization’s work on the island is conducted in collaboration with Sidon’s Municipality and the General Directorate for Marine Transport. Visitors to the island also participated.

Kozbar said that more permanents steps would soon follow. At a later stage, workers will be employed to keep Al-Zira clean, and restrooms, changing rooms, first aid equipment and new lighting for the island’s lighthouse will be installed as well. The group also plans to create floating berths for boats and walkways for pedestrians.

Mustafa Hably, the organization’s media official, explained that over the years Al-Zira has become an important tourist destination for residents from across the south.

The island has held a prominent position in the southern city since ancient times.

“Archaeologists and researchers … have confirmed from extensive studies that the island … was the most important part of the city,” Hably said.

“This island was a center of interest to civilizations across history. Due to its historical, humanitarian and touristic importance, the ‘Friends of Al-Zira and Sidon’s Beach’ organization was established.”

The organization will cooperate and collaborate with the concerned ministries, Sidon’s municipality and civil society groups, to make the preservation of the historical site a priority, Hably said.

They will work to preserve the marine environment and to create a sense of civic pride among the local youth. As members of the organization and volunteers busied themselves with their work, they were interrupted by a surprise visit from former Prime Minister Fouad Siniora.

Siniora, a Sidon native, toured the island and spoke nostalgically about visiting it as a child.

“The city exists on [top of] a large historical treasure, and we should work in order to remove the cover from this treasure, that [belongs to] the city’s people.” Siniora called on the Sidon’s residents to work together to preserve the historical and geographic landmark.

“We think that through this, we will achieve the principle that we announced years ago, that we need the city of Sidon to be attractive to both visitors and local residents, and not just a crossroads for passersby.”

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on June 15, 2015, on page 4.