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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.

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.

http://www.globalpost.com/dispatch/lebanon/091112/ecotourism-beirut-lebanon-hiking