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Going downhill fast — and loving it

Whether it's for the snow, socializing, or slinky catwalk models, skiers are flocking to Lebanon.

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.