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Tourism is one of the world’s largest industries and has been a catalyst for international development for years. According to the World Travel and Tourism Council (WTTC) and Oxford Economics, the sector employed a whopping 332 million people worldwide in 2019. It’s an industry that has shaped cities, built cultures, and helped bring the world together.
Moreover, the sector has been the backbone of Lebanon’s economy for years and has played a key role in the socio-economic development of Beirut specifically. As a matter of fact, the focus of the international market has been on Beirut as a tourist destination. In contrast, rural Lebanon, with the exception of a few day-trips, has been sorely neglected and underpromoted by locals and businesses alike, which has therefore affected its development and its opportunities for growth.
Nonetheless, a double-edged sword is a good metaphor for the travel and tourism industry, because for all the benefit it may provide, if left unmanaged and unregulated, it can do more harm than good. For example, the destruction of natural resources can change the identity and culture of a whole city, town, village, or destination. To further illustrate this, in an effort to tackle over-tourism in many areas, the United Nations World Tourism Organization (UNWTO) even advised closing off some locations like Maya Bay on Phi Phi Le Island in Thailand in order to protect the natural environment and local communities. Today, in a world without tourism, we have realized how vital this industry is and are rethinking our approach towards it. As we recover from the pandemic, it is crucial that we make sustainability the driving goal both locally and globally.
What is sustainable tourism?
First, we need to define what exactly sustainable tourism is. According to the UNWTO, it is “tourism that takes full account of its current and future economic, social and environmental impacts addressing the needs of visitors, the industry, the environment and host communities.”
In other words, sustainable tourism is tourism that:
- ensures local economic development and reinvests in the local region.
- has the least negative impact on the environment and communities.
- embraces and becomes a part of local culture.
- is profitable and viable for operators, tourists, and local communities
Opportunities for the Tourism Industry in Lebanon
To recover from the impact of shutdowns and border closures due to the current COVID-19 pandemic, governments all over the world have been spending their reduced annual tourism marketing budgets on domestic tourism promotions. “Staycations” and local travel have become the driving force in this sector over the past year and will continue to be for the foreseeable future.
Herein lies a huge opportunity for Lebanon. What’s more, the tourism industry can also help get the country out of its current economic crisis.
In recent times, a surge in domestic rural tourism has shed light on beautiful destinations within Lebanon to explore, as opposed to the usual popular attractions. These destinations have seen significant economic growth, thanks to cultural events and lively attractions, which help attract tourists. However, these same destinations have seen a negative impact on their scarce natural resources like waterfalls to forests, and on their cultural resources, from traditions to identity. Our rare natural gems could not cope with this rapid increase in visitor numbers and we ended up causing more harm than good and some destinations seem to have lost their essence becoming like a big shopping center for visitors.
To be able to attract both residents and international visitors without damaging natural and cultural resources, destinations should be better prepared to accommodate visitors whilst being properly monitored and managed. This management has to be done by the local authorities, communities, destination management organizations, the National Tourism Board, and, in an ideal world, the Ministry of Tourism.
The need for local destination management and responsible tourism practices by tour operators, tourists, and the community should focus on three main areas: society, economy, and environment.
Society and Culture
Tourism brings communities together and in a country like Lebanon with many invisible barriers, it might be the thing to create a bridge of tolerance and acceptance that spreads the cultural shift we so desperately need. Most Lebanese in Lebanon live in communities that share the same background, culture, and religion. Due to this, they might not interact and know their fellow compatriots until they actually get out of their areas for work in another city.
What tourism does is give citizens the opportunity to learn and discover how diverse and rich their own countries are. For instance, people living in Jounieh (a predominantly Christian area), visiting Tripoli during Ramadan nights and mingling with the Tripolitans, tasting their food and drinks, and staying up late until suhoor (the meal eaten by Muslims during Ramadan right before sunrise) and tarawih prayers (nightly prayers said by Sunni Muslims during Ramadan) get to experience a different side of Lebanon than what they’re used to. Also, people from Tripoli (predominantly Muslim) joining Eid el Sayde (a Christian religious holiday) in Ehden. Eyes sparkle and hearts fill with joy after days and nights like these. It is during such moments that we realize that the cultural and religious diversity in Lebanon is a blessing and never a curse. Tourism will help raise a culture of acceptance and tolerance that the country is very in need of, these imaginary borders will diminish and will become a bond that we all embrace.
Respecting cultures, accents, traditions, and values is key to a healthy and harmonious nation. A tourist should strive to preserve a destination and its communities’ norms. For instance, if the norm is not drinking on a beach, then that should be respected or if the local communities do not encourage wearing revealing swimwear in their local river, then it is on everyone to respect and behave in a way that always keeps the local community comfortable.
When thinking about going on a tour or visiting a place, our impact on the destination is the first thing that should come to mind. Even on a budget, we should aim to spend most of it in our destination, bringing the most economic benefit to the residents who will reinvest their income into the region. This will create a cycle of development where a tourist’s spending is directly contributing to the well-being of locals, creating more job opportunities, and reducing migration of youth into the cities and abroad, especially in Lebanon’s case.
Simple ways to be a more responsible tourist in Lebanon and support the communities you are visiting could include:
- Having breakfast in the village you’re going to rather than on the way. By avoiding the huge bakery on the highway and choosing the small one in the village, you’re sure to have a great bite, interact with the locals, and enjoy your time.
- Hiring a local guide who can show you the beauty that they see in their hometown and give you valuable information that you won’t find in a book or on Google. They help form a more personal relationship with the place you’re going to as well.
- Sleeping at small guesthouses, inns or bed and breakfasts rather than hotels. Guesthouses are by far the most intimate experience you can have with the locals, as you’ll be staying at their homes, eating their traditional food, and sharing their stories. It can make your stay all the richer.
Pick your walks and hikes in places in Lebanon that you know are being taken care of and looked after by a local organization, even if it means paying a small entry fee. Hiking in a nature reserve like the Shouf Cedar Reserve, Jabal Moussa, or the Horsh Ehden Nature Reserve, etc., is a unique experience while also being an ecologically conscious one. This is the most responsible form of ecotourism, because you know your impact is minimal compared to unmanaged destinations.
Should you decide to enjoy an unmanaged track or reserve, do not litter or light random campfires and follow the motto, “leave nothing but footprints.” Try taking it a step further and doing the environment a huge favor by picking up some of the trash left by others.
Bear in mind that sometimes a responsible tourist also teaches the locals a lot on how to take care of their own areas. By showing responsible practices in rural areas whose citizens do not value its natural resources, we can therefore teach the locals how to treat and take care of their own villages. This is especially true once there is a certain awareness that these resources are a direct link to economic and social benefit.
Sustainable Tourism Success Stories in Lebanon
Sustainable tourism is not a foreign concept in Lebanon and there are many villages that are already benefiting from it.
Douma’s old souk (markets) was built as a product of their trading importance. It used to be the meeting point between traders from Baalbeck, Batroun, and neighboring coasts. Today, this souk is alive again due to local tourists and sustainable tourism practices and management. There, you’ll find bakeries, ice cream parlors, local grocers, artisanal crafts, restaurants, and coffee shops.
A beautiful village in the heights of the Jbeil mountains, Akoura is a hidden gem. Locals lived off of their lands’ apple harvests for generations, but the Syrian Civil War decreased their exports and crop value significantly. The village used to be a destination for some adventure lovers as well, with its beautiful hiking trails, flowing river, hidden waterfalls, and the Ruwais cave (which is second to Jeita in terms of size).
Over time, with some local initiatives and support from destination management companies and operators, the youth of Akoura started to capitalize on their strengths and the village gained popularity year after year. Nowadays, it hosts groups all year round, has six guesthouses, a few trained local guides, a yearly camping event that hosts thousands of visitors, apple picking events, and a range of family activities. Akoura is an example of how initiatives in the area can benefit the village as a whole and transform it into a tourist destination while still supporting its residents.
In conclusion, tourism in Lebanon bounces back after every blow the country takes. Yet tomorrow, it is up to us to make sure that we are growing in a healthy and sustainable way, so that this country thrives for generations to come. We can help our tourism industry thrive while protecting our environment, stimulating our economy, and embracing our culture. We are ambassadors with a huge responsibility and a responsible tourist then creates a responsible local, in turn leading to a responsible community and finally (we hope!) a responsible municipality and government.
Sari Haddad is a hospitality and tourism professional and the founder of Lebanese Wanderers, a platform that promotes rural tourism in Lebanon whilst working with local authorities on sustainable rural development. Its aim is to also show you the authentic Lebanon with all its beautiful wonders, culture and secrets, which you may not necessarily see in mainstream media.