Going downhill fast — and loving it

KFARDEBIAN, Lebanon — The music thumped and the tall, slim models wore barely anything, despite the snow covering the hill above them. The wind blew, the sun shone and 2,000 people in ski boots and designer sunglasses gawked and snapped pictures as girls in skimpy nightgowns paraded on the catwalk.

This was the scene at Lebanon’s Mzaar ski resort during the annual weekend lingerie show in early March.

A table full of British, South African and Australian expats on a weekend skiing vacation from Dubai looked on. They drank Lebanese beer from green bottles and enjoyed the view of the mountains. And the models.

“We came to ski but this seems like a better option today,” said Matthew Trehy, a designer originally from London. “This is an added bonus.”

“It kind of doesn’t fit with the moral and cultural values that you always get told about in the Middle East,” said Dubai-based architect Katherine Chambers, with an iced bottle of white wine sitting on her table. “But hey, everyone seems to be enjoying it. But the models must be so cold.”

The lingerie show, part of a “winter festival” at the Mzaar resort, is just one way the ski area is trying to coax more Lebanese, and foreigners like Trehy and Chambers, to make the 90-minute drive from Beirut to the mountains. The Mzaar resort, located in the village of Kfardebian, is the largest of Lebanon’s six ski areas, with a 6,000-foot peak and 18 chairlifts. And this year the resort’s InterContinental hotel — which is owned by Mzaar ski resort, the parent company of the ski area — has been doing record business.

“From this week till next week we are at 100 percent capacity,” said InterContinental communications manager Joanne Zarife. “It’s about 20 percent higher than last year. We are having a record year.”

And the resort isn’t alone. The Lebanese Ministry of Tourism said the number of foreigners entering Lebanon in February was the highest in six years. The downturn began four years ago, when the 2005 assassination of former Lebanese prime minister Rafiq Hariri ushered in two years of bombings, assassinations, war and instability that kept tourists away.

Now that the battered country has had eight months of relative stability, Lebanon’s tourist attractions, such as Mzaar, are seeing the benefits. Zarife said 15 percent of the InterContinental’s guests are Gulf Arabs from countries including Saudi Arabia and Qatar. Another 20 percent to 25 percent are Europeans coming from Europe or who work in the Gulf.

“This year we had lot of foreigners coming, we had a lot of tourists,” said Nicole Wakim Freiha, the sales and marketing manager at Mzaar.

“The year before we had big problems in the country, but this year was really successful,” she said, adding that one Saturday this season there were 8,000 lift tickets sold — the highest number of lift tickets ever bought in a single day in the resort’s history.

Still, it’s hard to live down the country’s reputation as war-torn.

“The most we heard about Lebanon was Hezbollah and war and stuff,” said Norwegian professional snowboader Hans Kristian Bergheim. He and a team of other snowboarders sponsored by Quiksilver were brought in from Europe by the resort to participate in the snow festival’s snowboarding and ski jump exhibition.

“It’s really nice here. I recommend everyone to come to Lebanon at some point in their life,” Bergheim said.

Lebanon’s ski resorts are located mainly in the Christian-inhabited mountains east and north of Beirut. Massive steel crosses on the mountain peaks face somewhat defiantly out toward some of the country’s more conservative Islamic coastal cities and valleys below.

Lebanon’s ski industry began in the 1950s, when the Lebanese government installed the first chairlift at the Cedars ski area, on one of Lebanon’s highest peaks. A few years later, in the early 1960s, Lebanese entrepreneurs bought and installed the first chairlift at Mzaar. A luxury hotel was built at the foot of the mountain, chalets were built and more lifts added.

The ski area continued to expand until 1975, when Lebanon’s civil war erupted and the luxury hotel was occupied by a militia. Still, the resort continued to function. Local lore tells of the owners bringing a new chairlift through the port of Tripoli during the war, and skirting it through checkpoints to eventually get it up onto the mountain.

The InterContinental was built in 2000, nearly 10 years after the war ended. Now, Lebanon’s glitterati arrive here every weekend, including former presidents and Lebanese pop stars. Late model Porsches, Land Rovers and Mercedes drop off garishly dressed guests at the hotel entrance.

“Our clientele is the A+ and A category during the high season,” said Joost Komen, the InterContinental’s general manager. “The rich and famous, let’s say.”

Or at least those who plan to be rich and famous some day.

At the lingerie show, newly graduated fashion designers Yasmina Zaatari and Amanda Kabbani sat at a table with friends who had just cracked open a bottle of vodka, included in the $45 per person table charge. Zaatari sported Armani shades and a Rolex. Kabbani had on Ray-Bans. Both wore coats embellished with fur.

“This is Lebanon, dress to impress!” Zaatari said. “This is the way it goes here.”

In a country where individual incomes average $11,000 a year, few Lebanese can afford to ski regularly. The $30 to $50 lift tickets, the $250 a night Intercontinental Hotel (although there are other, cheaper hotels), and the $50 bottles of wine at the handful of local restaurants makes the resort off-limits to most.

But the expats from Dubai point out that skiing in Lebanon is cheaper than at most resorts in the U.S. and Europe. And it's a heck of a lot more convenient, said Chambers, a Dubai-based British architect.

“To get to Europe it’s seven hours on a plane. Coming here it’s three. So it’s that much easier,” she said as a model took to the catwalk in hold-up stockings and a tiny black lace bikini. Madonna’s “Material Girl” played loudly. Dubai-based designer Matthew Trehy was impressed.

“We fly back tomorrow, so this is a nice way to end the holiday,” he added. “You’d never see this in Dubai.”

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