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Lebanese discover their own backyard

An eco-tourism venture is opening up a whole new world for locals and foreigners alike.

Tourists walk in the forest of cedars, located north of Mount Lebanon, July 24, 2008. (Jamal Saidi/Reuters)

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.