From ancient forests to grand palaces
From ancient forests to grand palaces
The verdant Shouf, famous for its unspoiled green vistas, is rapidly evolving into a popular tourist hotspot for Lebanese from across the country, as well as vacationing expatriates, Arab tourists, and even foreign visitors. The area is located southeast of Beirut and comprises many tourist must-sees, from the historic towns of Beiteddine and Deir Al Qamar to the Shouf Biosphere Reserve. The reserve is a designated protected area covering 440 square kilometers, straddling three governorates (Mount Lebanon, the Bekaa, and South Lebanon) and encompassing 22 villages and three ancient cedar forests: Barouk forest, Maasser Al Shouf, and Ain Zhalta. The forests are home to the largest single concentration of cedruslibani in Lebanon, accounting for 25 percent of the remaining cedar forests in the country. Undoubtedly, the reserve is the single biggest tourist attraction in Shouf, but along its periphery are many things to see and do as well. With an increase in visitors and a rise in the number of fully loaded Pullman buses trundling up to the cedar forests on any given Sunday, visitors are seeking places to stay, places to eat, activities to do, and local crafts and artisanal foods to buy. Local businesses, municipalities, and reserve officials are beginning to respond to these tourists’ needs.
VISITOR NUMBERS GO UP
Last year, the reserve registered 85,966 visitors compared to 72,411 in 2015. Visitor numbers have shown a steady increase since 2010 when they are numbered just 58,073, according to the reserve’s latest annual draft report released to Executive. This year, visitor numbers have gone up between 15 to 20 percent, according to Nizar Hani, the general manager of the Shouf Biosphere Reserve. Income from reserve visitors’ entrance fees in 2010 was just LL242.8 million, whereas last year entrance fees totaled LL524.8 million, according to the report. “Most visitors—95 percent—are Lebanese. The rest are foreigners living in Lebanon; we also got some Iraqis visiting this year too,” Hani says. The reserve is also helping promote local businesses by offering visitors discounts at local restaurants. “What few visitors know is that the ticket you buy to enter the reserve entitles you to a 5 to 10 percent discount at selected local restaurants in the area,” he says.
The reserve and local municipalities are doing all they can to help promote the region as a complete package. On weekdays, tickets to enter the reserve are discounted to encourage visitors. “This year we introduced horse-riding in the Ain Zhalta forest. Among the other tourist activities in the area we have hiking and camping, we have snowshoeing in winter, we have the Assaf sculpture museum and the Rachid Nakhle Cultural Center, which commemorates the man who wrote the lyrics to our national anthem,” Hani says. The reserve is a treasure house of unique flora and fauna, including 520 species of plants; it is also a designated Important Bird Area (IBA), and ecotourism area. “The reserve is the southernmost extent of cedruslibani and has 296 species of birds and 32 species of mammals,” Hani says.
ECOTOURISM INVESTMENT OPPORTUNITIES
The Shouf Biosphere Reserve represents an important bolster to the ecotourism sector in the Shouf, according to Investment Development Authority of Lebanon’s website, which notes that the reserve provides “opportunities for ecotourism that remain untapped.” According to a 2015 Shouf Biosphere Re- serve report, the reserve generates an average of $19 million annually in revenue from a range of activities, from ecological and food production to ecotourism. Tourism alone generates $700,000 annually in and around the reserve, while biomass charcoal production generates up to $1 million annually, honey production generates $450,000, and hydroelectric power generates $1.3 million. Water bottling generates up to $3.3 million, not counting grid water provision, which generates up to $12.2 million in revenue. Hani says that only 10 percent of ecological services at the reserve can be monetized. “While the reserve is the main attraction, many things are needed to help economic growth in the region, like developing and improving quality of ecotourism services,” Hani says. The Shouf is the largest district in Mount Lebanon, it has a popula-
The reserve is a treasure house of unique flora and fauna, including 520 species of plants
tion of over 200,000 and a high literacy rate. The district has over 64,000 hectares of permanent agricultural land, 51 percent of which is dedicated to olive-tree plantations, although the mountains are draped in picturesque vineyards, there are only two operating wineries in the Shouf.
SOCIAL MEDIA DRIVEN
The region is getting very socialmedia savvy when it comes to promoting its attractions. The website authenticshouf.com promotes the reserve and gives useful information about the region’s flora and fauna and its many tourist offerings. The reserve’s Facebook page almost doubled in followers from just 11,000 in 2010, to 19,300 last year. The Jabalna Festival’s Facebook page is also helping promote and expand the region’s cultural activities. In September, the festival organized the National Dabke Day under the motto “The Dabke Must Go On” at Maasser Al Shouf cedar forest, which had 8,000 people in attendance, according to Hani.
“To attract tourists, we rely on the Authentic Shouf website, which promotes the whole of Shouf. Other than that, we rely on private sector initiatives,” says Elie Nakhle, mayor of the municipality of Barouk-Freidiss. He says that his municipality and others in the region do not have the funds or resources to undertake massive promotional campaigns on their own. Among the entrepreneurs that have embraced social media as a promotional tool is the Moukhtara-based restaurant Shallalat Nabeh Merched. Established in 1965, the eatery is nestled in the shade of the opening of a natural cave, under a rock formation from which a natural spring gushes out. The location attracts summer visitors looking for a cool spot to relax and have a meal. The restaurant began promoting itself online three years ago.
Majed Hussam Eddine, the owner and manager of Shallalat Nabeh Merched, says online promotion helped put the eatery on the map, but
The website authenticshouf.com promotes the reserve and gives useful information about the region’s flora and fauna and its many tourist offerings