Friday, October 18, 1996
HIKING TRAILS IN LEBANON
text and photographs by Fareed Abou-Haidar
Switzerland is a small, densely populated country; yet it has superb mountain scenery and many natural areas. Tourists flock by the hundreds of thousands to tour the old cities, be inspired by the views, and walk the country's extensive hiking trail system.
Lebanon, often called the Switzerland of the East, shares many of the traits its western counterpart. An established hiking trail system is not one of them. For decades, tourists in Lebanon have been directed to concentrate on a few small areas like the ancient ruins of Ba'alback, Tripoli, Byblos, and Tyre; the cave of Jeita; and to sample the night life of Beirut and the mountain resorts. Most of the rest of the country, including its mountains, is something to be seen from car windows while traveling between the big landmarks. One only needs to look at the old stock of Lebanese postcards; few stray from the traditional landmarks. For example, I have never seen an old postcard of the Ibrahim River gorge, the Barouk cedars, or the limestone rock formations of Keserwan. (The situation is changing; many postcards put out in recent years show many lesser-known areas.)
Lebanon needs to increase its tourist potential by encouraging what has recently come to be known as "ecotourism". Ecoutourists are adventurous people who want to see new, natural sights, and do so in a way that does not destroy the environment or the cultures of people they are visiting. When I traveled to Lebanon in 1995, I visited many of the traditional sites (Jeita, Tyre), but also went on several hikes in the high mountains. Here, I will concentrate on the need for a good system of hiking trails.
Lebanon has many unpaved old roads, pathways, and goat trails all over the country. Many are suitable for hiking. But, they are an unofficial, confusing maze. I have an old 100,000 scale (1 cm equals 1 km) map of Lebanon that shows hundreds of kilometers of trails and dirt roads. Certainly, a visitor from outside the country, or even a different part of Lebanon, would not know where to start, and would probably get lost.
The existing system of trails needs to be rehabilitated:
As a system of trails already exists in Lebanon, formally establishing it can be done at relatively little cost; it would cost only a tiny fraction of other projects such as the proposed Arab Autostrade from Beirut to Syria. By including hiking in Lebanon's tourist promotions, many more people might visit Lebanon. Hikers, whether foreign or from other parts of Lebanon, will pump money into the economy of villages in the vicinity of hiking trails. Hikers may choose to stay at hotels and eat at restaurants before and after a hike; they may also patronize businesses, such as grocery stores, in villages that lie along a trail. (Only in Lebanon can you buy a bar of Hall's ice cream in the middle of a hike!) Long distance hikers could spend their nights in hotels in villages along their way, in a manner similar to the chalet-to-chalet hiking practiced in Switzerland. Well-paid guides can take tourists on the back of donkeys in a fashion similar to what is done in the Grand Canyon in Arizona. In Beirut and other big cities, new stores will crop up to sell hiking boots, backpacks, and other hiking and mountain-biking equipment. The same stores that complain about the present hunting ban can reduce their dependence on guns and ammunition (as hunting becomes regulated in the future) by expanding into other outdoor sports. Nepal has benefited greatly from tourists, most of whom go there to hike. Lebanon, with some planning to avoid Nepal's mistakes (trash on Mount Everest, wood cutting for campfires, damage to the culture), can do the same.
At least one hiking club, Club de Vieux Sentiers, (Old Trails Club) exists in Lebanon. I did my hikes with them and met many people, including a few from Europe and the US. On one hike, about 75 people were present! Many other hiking clubs might get established, offering people a choice of hikes every weekend. The potential is definitely there. With a good, well-publicized trail system, many more people will take up sports such as hiking, mountain riding, and horseback riding, resulting in a healthier people and less cigarette smoking. Appreciation of the environment will increase. Activities such as rock quarrying, tree cutting, trash dumping, land subdivisions in areas away from towns, and other poorly conceived development will become less acceptable than they are now as people rise to defend their favorite hiking areas.
Finally, a listing of some routes that could become popular hiking trails. (The following assumes an end to whatever military restrictions may still be in effect as Lebanon continues its move towards peace.)
The "Club de Vieux Sentiers" hiking trips are announced in L'Orient-Le Jour paper (on no specific day of the week), but the group always meets in Antelias on Sundays at 7:30 a.m. In winter, they also go on cross-country skiing trips. For more info, call Joyce Tombi at (01) 443753 (you do not need to dial the area code from within Beirut); she is a frequent hike leader and can probably tell you the latest.
In a future LebEnv, I will talk about another aspect of ecotourism, bird watching, as Lebanon is blessed with a rich variety of birds and lies right in the path of one of the planet's largest migratory flyways.