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French Version

Hard season for ecotourism

Pastoral retreats like La Reserve suffered near-total losses in the summer of 2006

AFQA, Lebanon: "City dwellers spend 74 percent of their time between four walls," says Paul Ariss, riffing on a statistic from the World Health Organization.

"They definitely need to get out of the city to achieve some physical and mental equilibrium. This is the idea. It's not new and it's not mine. But it's a good idea and it was starting to work."

Ariss, 55, is the owner and managing director of La Reserve, an ecotourism resort and campground located in Afqa, an hour's drive up from Beirut in the mountainous Metn region.

Afqa is known for being the source of the Ibrahim River. In winter, the river's waters surge out of a huge mouth chipped through a 200-meter-high cliff. In summer, however, they merely trickle down, past the remains of a Roman temple that once paid tribute to Venus, who tried to save her lover Adonis here, after he was attacked by a wild boar while hunting, his blood rather memorably running into the river and staining it red.

Afqa is a study in contrasts. To get there, one drives on jagged, winding mountain roads and catches a glimpse of majestic landscapes on one side and evidence of extreme destitution on the other, as villages that seem to have been utterly lost by development or modernization pass by.

La Reserve is something of its own remote world, then, sprawled across 4 million square meters of virtually untouched land. Established 10 years ago, it has none of the fussiness associated with the word resort. Instead, it offers low-key, environmentally sound camping facilities and courses in hiking, caving, mountain climbing, rappelling, archery and more.

As a private as opposed to a public nature reserve, it is an unabashedly commercial endeavor. La Reserve makes its money through summer camps, outdoor education programs for area schools and team-building sessions for companies eager to beat a retreat from the office.

When political and financial analysts speak of the damaging blows delivered to Lebanon's tourism industry by this summer's 34-war with Israel, the dominant image that comes to mind is of Beirut's glitzy hotels and posh seaside restaurants and beaches.

Those concerns have certainly suffered, but even with the exodus of this summer's tourists, if the current cessation of hostilities holds, they are likely to recover and make up for lost time during Ramadan, the Christmas season and so on.

For places outside the capital and into the hinterland, however, places that have only one season of operation as opposed to four, it's not just a few months that have been lost but an entire year.

Among them are a slew of young and in many cases still financially fragile initiatives that have sprung up in the ecotourism sector - resorts and campgrounds like La Reserve, the nature refuge in the Barouk Cedars, the Al-Jord Ecolodge near Hermel and the Libana Eco Fun-Camp in Tabarja, along with green-friendly tour operators such as Exit to Nature, Liban Trek and Ibex Ecotourism.

"We are only open from May through October and our peak season is July, August and September," explains Ariss. "We run five summer camp sessions of 12 days each. This summer we just had one. The four others were cancelled."

Ariss estimates that well over half the summer campers who come to La Reserve are the children of Lebanese expats who return to the country and send their kids to commune with nature. So obviously they fled or cancelled their trips this year.

At least 90 percent of the outings planned by companies this summer were also cancelled and are unlikely to be rescheduled in La Reserve's final month of operation for 2006. Likewise, because the opening of the academic year has been shifted from September 15 to October 9, schools are unlikely to re-book their trips.

"Our turnover went down by over 80 percent," says Ariss, clearing his throat to mask a heavy sigh.

With the end of the war, La Reserve has seen visitors return. According to Ariss, about 40 campers stayed there over the past weekend and 150 came for the day on Sunday, whether for lunch in the rugged, open-air restaurant or a few hours of light sport.

But Ariss has resigned himself to the year's losses. "It's not worth investing any more for this year," he says, adding that a publicity campaign to attract people who may now be feeling circumspect about their country and more willing to explore its hidden corners is financially out of the question. "We are just praying that 2007 will be a quiet year.

"This war was very hard on all seasonal tourism," he explains. "Especially those businesses located in the mountains and in the Bekaa. The season was totally destroyed. It's a total loss. We'll wait for next year. But there's a lot of subtle damage to rural and sustainable development. The people in these areas benefit from restaurants and hotels and the summer season helps them to survive the whole year.

"We did okay in 2005," he adds. "It wasn't a good year for tourism in general, but we were far from the events that took place in Beirut. But 2006 was a killer ... It was a real shock."

Beirut 20-09-2006
Kaelen Wilson-Goldie
The Daily Star

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