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French Version

Name any outdoor activity you want and Exit to Nature is likely to be able to offer it (Daily Star)

The company can even teach you how to build an igloo
Founders are convinced they will succeed
because of the range of activities they can offer

Name any outdoor activity you want to do and Exit to Nature probably offers it. Hiking, paragliding, climbing, skiing, snow boarding, kayaking, sailing, bird watching, picnicking ­ you can even learn how to build an igloo.

The company is just two months old and some of their offers only exist in their business plan so far. But the founders, Aoun Abi Aoun, Jihad Kachaani, and Alain Gabriel, are hoping to make their plan succeed, for Lebanon’s sake, to do what they like doing most, and to make money in a market that has been much vaunted over the years but has only grown slowly.

In 1998, there were already three companies in the market and it was predicted that the sector would develop quickly. However, today not more than five or six companies offer nature trips, some saying they do it more for fun than for profit. But the founders of Exit to Nature are convinced they will succeed due to the wide range of activities they offer.

All three founders have been into outdoor activities since they were scouts. Gabriel loves snow boarding. Kachaani and Aoun are experienced paragliders and have been instructors at the Termique Paragliding School in Ajaltoun and Aoun has also worked as a mountain guide. Thus, it wasn’t difficult to find their first clients. “People already knew us as instructors and mountain guides,” Kachaani says. “We were already inside the market.” As Gabriel had his own travel agency, he brought in even more contacts.

They started with an investment of about $100,000, but already had their equipment for mountain climbing, skiing and paragliding. For a year, they experimented with offering trips before they founded the company. They knew from the start that they had to go beyond Lebanese clientele and attract foreigners. “We have done a survey to find out who is our target group,” Aoun says. He doesn’t really want to come out with the results though, in order not alienate anybody, because actually Exit to Nature has something for everyone in its program.

There are the weekend hiking trips for locals. They cost $35, which is a bit more than other offers by adventure clubs like Esprit-Nomade or Lebanese Adventure. Yet, Kachaani points out that they insure the participants and require two qualified guides to go on a trip and someone with first aid training. “All our activities are 100 percent safe,” he says.

To ensure that, they offer a one year training course for mountain guides, in which four people are currently enrolled. “A guide shouldn’t only know the trails, but also the history and geology of the area, and he should be an expert in caving and climbing, as well,” Aoun explains.

So far, nobody has managed to make much money with hiking trips for locals and Exit to Nature doesn’t expect to do so either. “We do it because we like it and the trips belong to our infrastructure,” Kachaani says.

It’s different with the trips they offer for tourists in cooperation with hotels. Currently, they organize them upon request. But possibly as soon as May, they want to offer a daily trip. As such trips include meals, they cost $65. “We have people from Europe, the US, New Zealand and recently a couple from Mexico, but our main target is Europeans,” Kachaani says.

Cypriots are especially interested in the packages. “Cypriots find Lebanon cheap. It’s only a 20 minute plane trip and the skiing areas here are comparable to those in Europe.”

But, the partners have also discovered a new target group for Ecotourism: Gulf Arabs. “They don’t like to hike for three hours,” Aoun says, “So, we created a special program for Arabs. We take them to the mountains, get out at a nice spot, like next to a river and set up a five star banquet. It’s what they expect, just in nature, and they love it.”

Last summer, the trips for Arabs were booked out, the partners affirm. “They don’t always want to go to restaurants and nightclubs,” Kachaani adds, refuting a common stereotype about Gulf Arabs. “Maybe they don’t want to hike for more than 15 minutes, but they are really interested in many activities. I had several Saudis fly with me.”

Exit to Nature also offer team building activities and adventure tours outside Lebanon. In team building, they work together with two business consultants. “There is a high demand,” says Kachaani.

Another profitable sideline are the trips abroad. Last February, they organized a trip to the Caribbean Islands, which was booked out. Easter, they will go skiing in France. For the summer, they have planned a trip to Mont Blanc and a cruise through the Greek islands. “Few companies here offer adventure traveling outside of Lebanon,” Kachaani says.

As if this weren’t yet enough for a three man company, they also try to sell their climbing abilities in urban environments. Upon request, they will set up climbing walls in the city, in hotels or clubs. And if a company is in need of someone who is not afraid of heights, they will drop by and do whatever job is required.

But Kachaani and Aoun confirm that they still have a long way to go until their business plan works out. “In the short term it’s gonna be tough. We take it step by step,” Aoun says.

Beirut 17-03-2004
Hannah Wetting
The Daily Star

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