Lebanese discover their own backyard

BEIRUT, Lebanon — A new trail that traverses Lebanon may dodge minefields and Hezbollah bunkers, but it, and a budding ecotourism business, is getting Lebanese out of the city and into the woods.

At least 12 ecotourism companies offer weekly or monthly hiking tours in a country that some have dubbed the “Switzerland of the Middle East” because of its topographical and cultural diversity.

“Because we have 19 different religious sects each area has its own little microculture,” said John Kairouz, the head the Lebanon Mountain Trail Association. “As you hike from one section to another, there’s a change in the food, the air, in the produce that’s grown.”

The Lebanon Mountain Trail was built with a $3 million grant from the United States Agency for International Development during the last three years, and winds 227 miles through the country's rural interior, through 75 villages. It takes about 26 days to hike the length of the trail, which begins in north Lebanon and straddles the Mount Lebanon mountain range, where 6,000-foot peaks rise dramatically from the narrow Mediterranean coastline on one side and offer a view onto the Bekaa Valley on the other. Farther south the trail weaves through the rolling foot hills and olive orchards below Mount Hermon in South Lebanon.

The association trained local guides and gave grants to residents in villages along the trail to renovate old, unused houses to be used as guest houses. Green technologies like solar panels have been used in construction to minimize the environmental impact. Now, these houses offer not only a warm bed but also, organizers hope, a way to both preserve the environment and make a living.

“It gives ownership and empowerment,” Kayrouz said. “Local villagers feel like own a part of the trail, and so they’ll protect it.

Despite the new trail and the country’s natural beauty, ecotourism and hiking for pleasure in Lebanon has only recently grown beyond a handful of enthusiasts. About half of Lebanon’s population of 4 million people lives in concrete apartment blocks of Beirut. The vast majority of the rest of the population lives in the country’s similarly urbanized coastal cities. But many Lebanese have roots in the country’s small mountain villages, and on Sundays big family dinners often bring Lebanese to higher altitudes for fresher air and home-cooked meals. But the city dwellers are rarely seen far from a paved road and their car. Lebanon’s ecotourism companies seek to offer an alternative, and some say they’ve been successful.

“People are starting to shift from the traditional way of spending a [Sunday], like going to a restaurant where everyone is smoking and the music is high,” said Rima Hage, 44, the administrator, spokesperson and official photographer for the ecotourism company Vamos Todos.

Hage began volunteering with Vamos Todos after she “got addicted” to hiking on one of their weekend trips.

The organization offers trips every Sunday, including one in late October, when 90 people gathered for a hike in a nature reserve holding some of the cedar trees that are Lebanon's national symbol.

Vamos Todos caters to a young, affluent crowd: each hiker paid about $27 dollars a person, and two chartered air-conditioned buses took the hikers from the meeting point in a suburb north of Beirut up to the trailhead.

Some hikers fly in from the hot and flat Arabian Gulf countries for a one-off weekend in Lebanon. Others come every weekend.

“I’ve been doing this for a year and a half, said architect Nour Jou Khalil, 27, as she stood boarded the bus at the hike’s rendezvous point at 7:30 a.m. “There are winter activities and summer activities: snowshoeing, kayaking and others.”

But Lebanon’s 1975 to 1990 civil war still dominates much of the country’s geography. One area of the cedar reserve can’t be hiked because of an old mine field. It’s not unusual in the mountains: tour organizers from the ecotourism companies and the staff at the Lebanon Mountain Trail recommend hikers always taking a guide who knows the area.

They also recommend a guide in the region where Hezbollah has built bunkers and a new defensive line, north of the Litani river, at the southern end of the Mount Lebanon range. At his office near Beirut, Lebanon Mountain Trail association chief John Kairouz points out on a map how prominent the Lebanon Mountain Trail is in an area that Hezbollah has basically made a no-go military zone, although the group wouldn’t deny access directly.

“When the trail was being delineated and designated, [the trail designers] had extensive talks with Hezbollah to go through this section here, and they just couldn’t make their mind up,” Kairouz said. “So, after a long period of time we had to move forward, so we went across, and down.”

“There’s a little section where we definitely do bump into them but they are very polite, and they just say, ‘what are you doing here?’ And we’ll say we’re hiking, and they’ll escort us at a very far distance. And so other than that, it’s quite agreeable, we don’t have any problems with that,” Kairouz said.

But there are very real dangers in the Hezbollah-dominated south of the country. The 2006 war fought between Israel and Hezbollah left millions of cluster bombs in the countryside, and the lethal bomblets continue to kill and maim civilians and United Nations peacekeepers based in the country’s “security zone” on the border with Israel.

There are also religious and political divisions and fears to account for in Lebanon. The country, although peaceful, has seen clashes between different political groups and religions over the last three years, which brought back dark memories of the civil war. Even now, many people prefer not to venture into areas they’re not familiar with, although it may only be a half-hour drive away.

Organized hikes by ecotourism companies, said Rima Hage, have given Lebanese the ability to see parts of their own country they may be too nervous to visit alone.

“There are some places I never set foot, especially because there was a war when I was young, we grew up in small community and this is all I knew,” she said. “Now, with Vamos Todos, I’ve been from north to south, to places I never dreamed of going. ”

In addition to crossing boundaries and getting Lebanese into nature, the hikes also appear to also be a good place for matchmaking. Vamos Todos’ Owner Mark Aoun says more than 20 marriages have resulted from meetings that took place on his tours. He says another 20 couples are slated to get married.