Lebanon: a tourist’s Mecca
Over the past few years Lebanon has been defined by the conflicts that have torn it apart. But in 2009 The New York Times ranked Beirut first on its “44 places to go” list and Lonely Planet named it one of the top 10 liveliest cities. It seems the veil has been lifted and the city, dubbed the Paris of the Middle East, is alive once more. By Victoria Nakhle.
In July 2006, Lebanon exploded. Airstrikes and artillery fire ravaged the country, destroying almost every overpass. The explosions did not stop until the city of Beirut, once the hub of society, resembled a child’s makeshift sandpit. Later, 2007 saw the most severe internal fighting since Lebanon’s 1975–90 civil war.
But this year the explosions took on a different nature. Colourful fireworks lit up the night sky, illuminating the millions of tourists partying till daybreak and beyond. Trendy nightclubs and bars required bookings weeks in advance and charged well over $1000 for bottles of champagne. Artists such as Kelly Rowland, David Guetta and Snoop Dogg performed sell-out shows in front of swarms of carefree partygoers.
Over the past few years Lebanon has become defined by the conflicts that have torn it apart. But in 2009 The New York Times ranked Beirut first on its “44 places to go” list and Lonely Planet named it one of the top 10 liveliest cities. It seems the veil has been lifted and the city, dubbed the Paris of the Middle East, is alive once more.
Beirut is now known for its endless summers, carefree lifestyle and scantily clad women. A stroll downtown highlights the unique diversity of its culture, with the faithfully conservative rubbing shoulders with the outright rebellious.
“It’s just a constant over there,” says Australian tourist Shaun Martin of his trip to Lebanon. “I was a bit reluctant to go but my Lebanese friends assured me it would be a good time. Between all the parties and the festivals going on we barely got a spare second to relax.” Martin was one of the record one million tourists who descended upon Lebanon in July this year, with the Tourism Ministry expecting over 2.5 million by the end of 2009.
Cheap airfares may partly account for the record number of tourists now heading to the tiny Mediterranean country. Abraham Khoury, owner of Travelscene in Merrylands, witnessed a significant jump in business when prices for tickets to Lebanon reached a record low – around $1400 per economy ticket.
“There has been an extremely high interest in Lebanon as a tourist destination; many choose to go to visit friends and family but also for the night life and to see the amazing sites such as the ancient ruins of Baalbek.”
But in an area which regularly makes news headlines for civil strife and high profile assassinations, it remains a mystery to many how a feeble armistice is enough to compel hoardes of tourists to travel the country. In May this year sectarian conflict result in the deaths of more than 100 people.
According to David Beirman, National Secretary of the Eastern Mediterranean Tourism Association, “most Australian tourism to Lebanon is effectively visiting friends and relatives”. While Lebanon has had a long history of internal conflict and external invasions since the outbreak of the Lebanese Civil War in 1975, Beirman maintains that “since 2006 things have been relatively stable by Lebanese standards and the fact that Lebanon is a fantastic, inexpensive and compact tourism destination makes it attractive for many travellers.”
However, as the parties carry on and the drinks are downed, reminders of the country’s ongoing political turmoil don’t fail to puncture the blithe atmosphere.
“There are still signs of war but it mostly goes unnoticed,” says Wadih El-Beaini, a Lebanese expatriate who, like many, goes back to visit friends and family. “I once got stopped at a checkpoint outside Beirut. Apparently that same night the army caught seven Syrians that were planning on bombing somewhere near the city so I was searched and interrogated.”
Yet such indications of political unrest do not deter keen travellers for whom the scenic views and remarkable nightlife seem to outweigh potential dangers.
Jamila Ayoub was one of thousands of Australians marooned in Lebanon when Israeli war jets bombed the Beirut to Damascus highway and the runway of Beirut’s international airport in a series of retaliatory attacks in 2006.
But Ms Ayoub says she would have no hesitation in returning despite her experience.
“I woke up one day and my cousin was telling me the airport was bombed and Israel was attacking. It was all over the news and I didn’t want to hear about it but it’s hard to ignore when you see jets flying overhead. No one that grew up in Lebanon was as scared as my sister and I were. It’s sad but they were used to it… [but] I would go again, it’s beyond amazing.”
Does Beirut sound like a happening place to go on holiday? Or would your concern for your safety override the desire to visit? Have your say below.