Bham­doun’s tourism waste­land

Stunted growth and an out­dated tourism busi­ness model that’s not work­ing

Executive Magazine - - Front Page -

It is a de­press­ing sight: closed shops, empty restau­rants, and aban

doned ho­tels. Bham­doun’s main street, once the glit­ter­ing gem of Le­banon’s golden age, be­trays noth­ing of its pol­ished up­scale past. To­day, the moun­tain town’s di­sheveled ap­pear­ance, with its dug up main road and aban­doned build­ings, seems to be con­spir­ing to keep the tourists away. Lo­cal busi­ness own­ers ad­mit that a re­think of busi­ness strat­egy is in or­der. Some be­lieve that the town should fo­cus on at­tract­ing more year-round lo­cal tourists, rather than wait­ing for a re­turn in force of Gulf Arab tourists that has not yet ma­te­ri­al­ized.

Bham­doun is just 20-min­utes by car from Beirut, a steep climb that brings you 1,200 meters above sea level. Its cool and dry sum­mer cli­mate, easy ac­cess, and prox­im­ity to the cap­i­tal made it a pop­u­lar sum­mer des­ti­na­tion for many coastal dwellers. In fact, be­fore the 1975-90 civil war, the town was fa­mous for its lux­ury ho­tels and lav­ish sum­mer homes built by some of Beirut’s wealth­i­est fam­i­lies. Sum­mer­ing Kuwaitis rapidly adopted it as their home away from home, buy­ing up prop­erty, and even nam­ing ho­tels af­ter lo­cal­i­ties in Kuwait.

The golden age of Bham­doun ended with the start of the civil war in Le­banon and the 1983 moun­tain bat­tles. Mem­o­ries of those dark days are still fresh in lo­cal minds. “There are as few as 100 Bham­dou­nis who live up here all year round, I’m one of them,” says hote­lier Karam Abou Rjeily. “Many peo­ple em­i­grated abroad and never re­turned, many more live in Beirut and rarely come up here,” he says. Among the few to re­turn to their na­tive vil­lage in the 1990s was Naji Boutros, owner of Belle­vue Win­ery and Bou­tique Ho­tel, and Le Tele­graphe restau­rant in Bham­doun. An in­vest­ment banker by pro­fes­sion, Boutros came to Le­banon along­side his Amer­i­can wife Jill with the idea of turn­ing Bham­doun into Mount Le­banon’s own ver­sion of Napa Val­ley. He be­gan plant­ing his grand­fa­ther’s land with grapevines in the mid-1990s. “To­day, we have 240,000 square meters of land planted with vines that pro­duce 25,000 bot­tles of wine per year,” he says. By 2003, Chateau Belle­vue’s first vin­tage won the In­ter­na­tional Spir­its and Wine Com­pe­ti­tion’s Gold Medal Best in Class award. It turns out that the same weather con­di­tions that long at­tracted tourists to Bham­doun also help grow some of the most in­tensely fla­vored grapes, ex­cel­lent for pro­duc­ing ex­cep- tional wines.

ABAN­DONED HO­TELS

“Be­fore the war, Bham­doun was more im­por­tant than Beirut, it had 5,000 ho­tel rooms, and ac­counted for 60 per­cent of the coun­try’s tourism GDP,” Boutros says.

The big ho­tels are still there, all 52 of them, mar­shalled along a strip of high­way in Bham­doun Ma­hata, a sep­a­rate mu­nic­i­pal dis­trict from Bham­doun vil­lage, built around the old train sta­tion or ma­hata in Ara­bic. The main thor­ough­fare was once a vi­brant com­mer­cial and tourist hub. To­day, most of the ho­tels lie aban­doned, ne­glected, and un­re­stored, oth­ers were re­built and re­fur­bished only to be closed back up due to the low vis­i­tor num­bers that did not jus­tify the high cost of keep­ing them up and run­ning. Abou Rjeily says that only five ho­tels, in­clud­ing his own, re­main open for busi­ness in the town.

Most of the ho­tels that are still op­er­at­ing are owned by Gulf Arabs, who could af­ford to ren­o­vate; many Le­banese ho­tel own­ers mi­grated abroad. “The prob­lem is that any in­vestor would end up pay­ing out mil­lions to re­store a ho­tel, only to op­er­ate for, at most, one sea­son a year in the sum­mer,” he says. Nadim Mou­jaes, an ac­tive mem­ber of Bham­doun vil­lage’s mu­nic­i­pal coun­cil, says that since the war in Syria be­gan, tourism has suf­fered greatly in Bham­doun, since most of its tourists came over­land through Syria from Arab coun­tries, such as Iraq, Jor­dan, Kuwait, and Saudi Arabia. “When the Gulf coun­tries warned their ci­ti­zens against trav­el­ing to Le­banon, that fur­ther im­pacted tourism. We do get some Euro­peans com­ing these days, but they are not high-in­come earn­ers,” Mou­jaes says. He adds that while Le­banese ex­pats are com­ing to Bham­doun in larger num­bers, they of­ten own their own homes and do not ben­e­fit the ho­tel busi­nesses in town.

POOR IN­FRA­STRUC­TURE

Mou­jaes claims that the gov­ern­ment is not do­ing enough to im­prove roads and tourism in­fra­struc­ture in Bham­doun. “The road, which was built 150 years ago, and which links Beirut to Da­m­as­cus and the wider Arab re­gion, was once a bless­ing for us. To­day, in its present con­di­tion, it’s a curse,” the mu­nic­i­pal coun­cil mem­ber says. The ad­mit­tedly dan­ger­ous, winding road that goes up to Aley and Bham­doun is of­ten plagued by heavy trucks driven reck­lessly, mak­ing the ride up an un­pleas­ant one at best. Mou­jaes says that the tun­nel built at the up­per ap­proaches to Bham­doun Ma­hata has been un­der con­struc­tion for seven years, and has yet to be com­pleted. In fact, the road sur­face around the tun­nel was be­ing dug up when Ex­ec­u­tive vis­ited the town.

Boutros says that the gov­ern­ment made many mis­takes in the area; the first dates back to the 1950s, when all the ho­tels in Bham­doun and Saw­far lost their gam­bling li­censes as thethen gov­ern­ment con­cen­trated all gam­ing ac­tiv­i­ties at Casino du Liban. “This re­duced ho­tels’ in­comes to just a three-month sum­mer pe­riod,” he says. The other mis­take was the con­struc­tion of the so-called Arab High­way that passes above and is clearly vis­i­ble from the neigh­bor­ing vil­lage of Saw­far and its once iconic Grand Ho­tel; to­day the ho­tel re­mains an aban­doned shell. “No one wants the view or noise of a high­way from their sum­mer re­sort. Peo­ple come here to leave the noise of the city be­hind, all they want to hear is the sound of a rooster crow­ing in the morn­ing,” says Boutros.

Ac­cord­ing to Mou­jaes, the mu­nic­i­pal­ity in Bham­doun vil­lage has done a lot with its limited re­sources, plant­ing 500 trees this year, in­stalling street light­ing where there was none, re­fur­bish­ing the lo­cal spring, and im­prov­ing wa­ter dis­tri­bu­tion. “There can be no tourism with­out in­vest­ment, and to get in­vest­ment you need to give in­vestors sta­bil­ity and se­cu­rity. In Le­banon, by con­trast, we have a shock ev­ery four to five years,” Mou­jaes says. He added that de­spite mul­ti­ple po­lit­i­cal as­sas­si­na­tions, and a war in 2006, the years 2004 to 2008 were still bet­ter in terms of tourist num­bers than the last few years have been. Since the start of the Syr­ian con­flict, the mood has turned very tense in the town due to po­lit­i­cal di­vi­sions in the coun­try. “Bham­doun is a mixed area in sec­tar­ian terms, we feel strong and con­fi­dent when the cen­tral gov­ern­ment is strong, and we feel weak and un­sure when the cen­tral gov­ern­ment is weak,” he says.

GLIM­MER OF HOPE

De­spite the bleak overview, the out­look for the fu­ture seems promis­ing. Abou Rjeily notes that this sea­son saw a 10 to 15 per­cent im­prove­ment in busi­ness com­pared to the last few years when Gulf vis­i­tor num­bers slowed to a trickle as the over­land route was closed. “We still get vis­i­tors from Kuwait, but now we fo­cus mostly on Le­banese ex­pats who have the pur­chas­ing power vis­it­ing over the week­end,” he says. The Carl­ton Ho­tel cur­rently op­er­ates 50 rooms, and Abou Rjeily also owns a pop­u­lar Ital­ian eatery, Olivo, on the ho­tel’s ground floor. “Our oc­cu­pancy rate re­mains low, 25 per­cent, at most 30 per­cent on week­ends. Our restau­rant is ac­tu­ally sus­tain­ing the ho­tel when usu­ally it should be the other way around,” he says. De­spite the cur­rent slump, some new prop­er­ties have emerged and are do­ing brisk busi­ness. Safat Suites ho­tel apart­ments, a three-build­ing com­plex com­pleted in 2011 just as the war in Syria heated up, is one such prop­erty. A Kuwaiti

Since the war in Syria be­gan, tourism has suf­fered greatly in Bham­doun

group owns the es­tab­lish­ment, but a team from the Riviera Ho­tel in Beirut runs it. Elie Kas­souf, op­er­a­tions man­ager at the Riviera Ho­tel and gen­eral man­ager of Safat Suites, opened one of the ho­tel’s three build­ings for busi­ness this year — 32 apart­ments out of a to­tal of 90 — he also de­cided to cut costs down to the bone and lower prices. The plan worked, and to­day he boasts a 98 per­cent oc­cu­pancy rate. “Last month [July] we had a lot of well-to-do Syr­i­ans stay­ing, this month [Au­gust], we have mostly Kuwaitis and Saudis,” Kas­souf says.

This is the first year they have opened for busi­ness since con­struc­tion on the ho­tel was com­pleted in 2011, and the re­sponse has been en­cour­ag­ing. “We re­al­ized that we couldn’t charge high prices any more, a ho­tel room for around $250 wasn’t go­ing to work, so we de­cided to re­duce costs, not of­fer break­fast or valet ser­vice, and in­stead, of­fer ho­tel apart­ments at af­ford­able rates,” Kas­souf said. A two-bed­room apart­ment at Safat Suites goes for as lit­tle as $120 a night. Only their largest suite is priced at $250 a night, and that in­cludes a private jacuzzi. The ho­tel also offers a gym and chil­dren’s play area, and Kas­souf sup­ple­ments the ho­tel’s in­come by rent­ing out street level space to three eater­ies. Le­banese ex­pats are com­ing to Bham­doun in larger num­bers these days, Mou­jaes says. “They are of­ten more aware of the real po­lit­i­cal and se­cu­rity sit­u­a­tion than for­eign tourists are. Le­banon is also get­ting a lot of pos­i­tive press in­ter­na­tion­ally, we have one the high­est num­ber of sum­mer fes­ti­vals per square kilo­me­ter any­where in the world.”

PRESCRIPTION FOR SUC­CESS

Bham­doun’s main thor­ough­fare, how­ever, re­mains de­press­ingly empty. Shops and restau­rants are shut­tered, and pedes­trian traf­fic is vir­tu­ally nonex­is­tent. Boutros says the prob­lem is that too many peo­ple are rest­ing on their pre-war lau­rels and not look- ing to move for­ward and sup­port in­fra­struc­ture im­prove­ments to allow busi­nesses to re­turn and flour­ish. “Bham­doun Ma­hata will re­cover only if a strate­gic vi­sion is put to­gether and the area rein­vents it­self from a [Gulf] Arab des­ti­na­tion to a to­tal qual­ity en­vi­ron­ment sub­urb of Beirut that is not just a sum­mer re­sort,” Boutros says. He ad­vises ho­tel own­ers to repur­pose their closed ho­tels into stu­dent dorms or nurs­ing homes. Bham­doun Ma­hata could eas­ily be trans­formed into a univer­sity or health­care city, he adds.

Abou Rjeily says that for Bham­doun to at­tract year-round lo­cal tourists, time and money have to be in­vested in eco­tourism. “We need to give peo­ple ac­tiv­i­ties to do when they come up here, we can’t ex­pect them to just sit in the ho­tel all day. We need ac­tiv­i­ties for kids, hik­ing, all-ter­rain ve­hi­cles; we need pro­mo­tional cam­paigns through the news me­dia and on Face­book ... To­day, we rely on Gulf vis­i­tors, but what if they stop com­ing, what do we do then?” Boutros agrees that for Bham­doun vil­lage en­cour­ag­ing and de­vel­op­ing eco­tourism ac­tiv­i­ties is its best bet for a brighter fu­ture. He feels that his win­ery, restau­rant, and bou­tique ho­tel are the seeds of a grow­ing trend. “You need to at­tract tourists that will spend money on en­vi­ron­men­tal-based prod­ucts, whether it’s wine or lo­cal cheeses or even hik­ing,” Boutros says, adding that sus­tain­able tourism can only be based around an area’s nat­u­ral beauty and nat­u­ral prod­ucts, sup­port­ing the lo­cal pop­u­la­tion.

Boutros bought the for­mer res­i­dence of the French Am­bas­sador to Iraq and Iran from the French gov­ern­ment, and trans­formed it into a bou­tique ho­tel. Its neatly kept lawns and top­i­aries and red tiled roof stands in stark con­trast to the many still aban­doned, burned out and half de­mol­ished homes in Bham­doun. It is a re­minder that the town still has a long way to go to heal old wounds and re­turn to its pre-war glory days.

Could Bham­doun be­come Le­banon’s Napa Val­ley?

Grand Ho­tel Bham­doun

Saw­far Grand Ho­tel

Bham­doun Sta­tion

Bham­doun vil­lage house

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