Friday, October 18, 1996

LebEnv #13


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:

  • It needs to be inventoried and mapped. The inventory should differentiate between trails on lands belonging to various government entities, and those on privately owned land.
  • A large selection of trails should be designated as part of a national trail system. Such trails would lead to various landmarks such as national parks, mountain peaks, scenic viewpoints, natural arches, or simply wander along streams, through forests, or connect villages. Such trails would be far from roads (and their traffic, noise and pollution), only crossing them as needed. Designated trails could pass through private lands with the approval of owners. At the present time, a lot of hiking is done on uninhabited private lands anyway. The owner's town would benefit (see below).
  • Trailheads would be established on the sides of roads. A small parking area (preferably in an existing cleared area) or a wide space on the side of the road would allow hikers to park safely and hike from that point.
  • Signs, designed uniformly to be easily recognizable all over the country, would be present at trailheads and junctions; these would include the name of the trail and distances to landmarks. Each trail would have its own unique name.
  • The trailheads would include simple maps on large metal boards to give hikers an idea of where the trail goes. Brochures would be available at trailheads and in bookstores. These would include more detailed maps and information on historical and natural features seen on the trail. General information would cover things such as hiking ethics (no littering, wood cutting, fires, mutilating plants, etc.). A book covering trails in the entire country could be published and sold to local people and foreign visitors.
  • Parts of the trail system (where suitable) could be open to horse riders as well. Non-motorized mountain bikes could also be allowed on certain trails, and many other wide dirt roads could be used by mountain bikers. Backpackers (as opposed to day hikers) would hike with tents and sleeping bags for extended trips on long trails in remote areas. High-elevation trails could also be used for cross-country skiing in winter.
  • At present, many hikes are done cross-country in remote areas, especially those above approximately 1500 meters. This could continue, but would be discouraged from areas near existing trails and in national parks and other popular areas to reduce trampling and erosion.

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.)

  • Nahr Ibrahim, from the coast to its source at Afqua. Be ready to swim in freezing water in at least one stretch!
  • A trail from The Cedars to Qornet al-Sawda and down the other side into the Bequa'a Valley.
  • A trail (or designated route) running along the crest of Mount Lebanon.
  • A trail along the bottom of the Qadisha valley (after ancient religious sites have been secured).
  • A short, but steep, trail from Jounieh to Harissa. The scenery may be ugly because of the development, but would be good exercise. (In Phoenix, Arizona, people climb a 400-meter high mountain for exercise, often several times a week.)
  • A trail going up and down through valleys between Bhamdoun, Ras el-Matn, Qornayel, Bzebdine and Mtein.
  • A system of trails in the incredibly large and remote mountainous area around Sir ed-Daniyyeh in the far north, including Wadi Jhannam. -Trails to remote ancient ruins, including many obscure Roman temples. (Roads would be banned or closed as needed to prevent theft and vandalism.)

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.



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