SUS­TAIN­ING LE­BANON’S RU­RAL TOURISM

Executive Magazine - - Special Report -

There is a grow­ing lo­cal clien­tele in Le­banon hun­gry for a more “au­then­tic” ex­pe­ri­ence of the

coun­try. Through word of mouth and so­cial me­dia, ru­ral ac­tiv­i­ties, such as fruit pick­ing and hik­ing, are slowly mov­ing from small groups of con­nois­seurs to be­ing em­braced by a broader pub­lic. Guest­houses across the coun­try, once in­for­mal, are be­com­ing a stay-cation pref­er­ence for Le­banese. In the words of Ka­mal Mouza­wak, founder of Souk El Tayeb — which op­er­ates sev­eral guest­houses, restau­rants, food fes­ti­vals, and mar­kets through­out the coun­try — more and more Le­banese are seek­ing “the same ex­pe­ri­ence as go­ing to their grand­mother’s house.”

Leav­ing the cap­i­tal to visit one’s fam­ily home in the moun­tains may be an age-old tra­di­tion in Le­banon, but the in­sti­tu­tion­al­iza­tion of ru­ral tourism, with guest­houses, tour guides, and proper sig­nage, is a rel­a­tively re­cent phe­nom­e­non.

FOS­TER­ING RU­RAL TOURISM

In the past, guest­house own­ers had been ac­com­mo­dat­ing tourists on an ad hoc ba­sis. Around 2010 they came to the re­al­iza­tion that they could turn this ac­tiv­ity into a prof­itable busi­ness, ac­cord­ing to Mar­tine Btaich, pres­i­dent of the Le­banese Moun­tain Trail As­so­ci­a­tion (LMTA).

Help and train­ing came from USAID, through Diyafa, a network of ru­ral guest­houses that last year launched an up­graded on­line book­ing site, and through the Le­banon - In­dus­try Value Chain Devel­op­ment (LIVCD) project, which be­gan in 2012. Ini­tially billed as five year, $41.7 mil­lion project —

“aimed at im­prov­ing Le­banon’s eco­nomic sta­bil­ity and pro­vid­ing in­come-gen­er­at­ing op­por­tu­ni­ties for small busi­nesses while cre­at­ing jobs for the ru­ral pop­u­la­tion, in par­tic­u­lar women and youth” LIVCD was re­cently given a two-year ex­ten­sion till 2019. The hope be­ing that by then, the ac­tiv­i­ties that re­ceived fund­ing and sup­port will have be­come self-sus­tain­ing.

From hum­ble be­gin­nings, the num­ber of guest­houses in Le­banon has risen to around 80, per LIVCD fig­ures, though as of yet, no cen­tral­ized data on guest­houses ex­ists. Pe­tra Obeid, who is in charge of ru­ral tourism at the Min­istry of Tourism (MoT), told Ex­ec­u­tive that fig­ures are cur­rently be­ing col­lated.

Obeid says that the MoT sup­ports ru­ral tourism through a na­tional strat­egy de­vel­oped in tan­dem with LIVCD and launched in 2015. Among its aims were to pro­mote aware­ness of ru­ral tourism des­ti­na­tions, in­sti­tu­tion­al­ize ru­ral tourism at the com­mu­nity level of lo­cal com­mu­ni­ties, im­prove and en­force en­vi­ron­men­tal, cul­tural, his­tor­i­cal, and agri­cul­tural pro­tec­tions, di­ver­sify and mod­ern­ize ru­ral des­ti­na­tions, im­prove data col­lec­tion, de­velop a cul­ture of ru­ral tourism among the younger gen­er­a­tion and im­prove net­work­ing with the di­as­pora.

Ac­cord­ing to Btaich, so far the strat­egy has vali- dated the ef­forts of tourism stake­hold­ers. “Many new ini­tia­tives at the level of mu­nic­i­pal­i­ties have been done, cre­at­ing a snow­ball ef­fect,” she says. “The chal­lenge now is for the strat­egy not to sit in a drawer.”

GUEST­HOUSES: A REA­SON­ABLY PROF­ITABLE VEN­TURE

The cost of rooms is var­ied. If booked through L’Hôte Libanais, a web­site with a network of 16 guest­houses, prices can range from $80 to $250, with the av­er­age room go­ing for $100 - $120. Guest­houses that are part of the Diyafa network, tend to be cheaper. Ac­cord­ing to LIVCD fig­ures, they cost $60 per per­son on av­er­age, and start as low as $40. Or­phée Had­dad, L’Hôte Libanais’ founder works at the higher end of mar­ket, only list­ing guest­houses that in­ter­act with the lo­cal com­mu­nity, serve lo­cal food, are en­vi­ron­men­tally friendly, and that, in his eyes, have “char­ac­ter.”

The pop­u­lar­ity of guest­houses shows no sign of wan­ing, both for those look­ing for a place to re­lax out­side the city and for en­tre­pre­neur­ial types eye­ing the op­por­tu­nity to rein­vent fam­ily prop­erty. Philippe Ger­manos, who co-runs Guita Bed and Bloom, left cor­po­rate life a few years ago to re­turn to his fam­ily home and de­velop the de­clin­ing farm­ing busi­ness that he in­her­ited from his great grand­fa­ther.

The five rooms of the guest­house, which cost

If booked through L’Hôte Libanais, a web­site which has a network of 16 guest­houses, prices can range from $80 to $250, with the av­er­age room go­ing for $100 - $120

An in­creas­ingly pop­u­lar trend that still lacks a proper le­gal frame­work

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