Forget the delicious food and hospitable, albeit nosy people. Forget the culture and history we’ve stacked under our cities. Forget our reputation as a nightlife hotspot. The one thing that makaes Lebanon truly extraordinary is right under our feet – the land. Lebanon, underneath it all, is naturally beautiful.
Maybe that’s why for millennia people have lived here, been drawn to this region and fought on and over this land. It’s not hard to see why – the location is strategic, the climate is mild and the landscape is magnificent and so varied that the national cliché offers skiing and swimming in one day.
Perhaps the most undervalued thing of beauty in our country is the country itself: the blue coast and rocky shoreline speckled with sandy pockets, white-coated coniferous mountains, lush green valleys and cascades pooling into cool rivers and ponds – all crammed into 10,452 square kilometers.
Today, Lebanon, the natural beauty, is damaged, frayed and dirty, maybe irreversibly so. An unresolved trash crisis, security threats and the usual lack of infrastructure are making the country harder and harder to promote to its own people, let alone tourists. We have so much wasted potential. Not only is the country not using its natural resources to their full potential, but it’s destroying these resources at an appalling rate. Why are people so adamant on destroying Lebanon? How is it possible to have so little regard for the land that feeds you?
Most of these issues must be resolved by the government, and while it’s the public that inexplicably continues to reelect the same people, they’re impossible to change by a few citizens singlehandedly. But despite the challenges hurled at them, a few individuals are doing a lot for the promotion of Lebanon’s natural beauty.
Live Love Beirut co-founder Eddy Bitar points out that the word “politics” comes from the Greek politikos, meaning of, for, or relating to citizens and city. Nothing about Lebanese politics seems to be about the citizens anymore but the efforts of his organization, among others, be they businesses or nonprofits, are commendable examples of real citizenship for a country that really has the makings of paradise.
Live Love Beirut began as a crowd-sourced social media “love campaign” for Lebanon in 2012, disseminating beautiful photos of the country for the world to see. “We are selling Lebanon. We’re creating attachment and belonging to Lebanon and to different places [within the country]that people didn’t know existed only a few years ago,” says Bitar.
Today, ‘Live Love’ accounts have been launched for various regions and interests and Live Love Beirut has grown into a community of 1.5 million worldwide followers and a team of 300 ambassadors in charge of different area accounts. Of course some people knew about these regions in the past but thanks to the wide reach of social media an exponential amount of people now know about places like the Baskinta waterfalls, beautiful parts of the underappreciated Bekaa valley, the Greece-like seaside town of Anfeh, the lush river haven of Chouwen and the large stretch of sandy beach in Tyre.
A good portion of the Lebanese public is shifting to discovery mode, exploring their country more than ever before. Biking-enthusiast Karim Sokhn launched Cycling Circle in 2012, organizing small bicycle tours for friends and those interested. He always explores an area himself first before creating a tour, sometimes with locals or officials from municipalities. Some of his excursions take bikers to the picturesque Bisri valley below Jezzine and along northern coastal towns like Byblos, Batroun and Chekka, among others. He says the south is largely undiscovered and also very beautiful, naming towns like Marjayoun, Rashaya and Shaqif.
In 2012 Sokhn had a total of close to 300 customers. Fast forward to today, he says he’s toured 1200 people already and it’s only halfway through the year. While some bikers join for the fitness of riding, others want to explore new areas or just experience the novelty of being on a bike. “The great thing about biking is that you are riding at a slow pace and you get to see the things around you,” he says.
He says social media played a huge role in his business – both in terms of posting photos of previous tours to attract clients to new sites and creating Facebook events that make it easy for people to join. Those actively promoting Lebanon’s tourism industry agree that social media has had a major effect on the public’s perception of Lebanon.
Live Love Beirut is a social movement that harnesses the power of social media. In fact 45 percent of their followers are the Lebanese diaspora. “It’s people like the guy in LA who’s dreaming about a manoushe,” Bitar says. The campaign has been such as success that Lebanon’s Ministry of Tourism adopted it two years ago.
It’s not only online that Lebanon is being promoted. The Lebanon Mountain Trail Association (LMTA) promotes Lebanon primarily through word of mouth, including through its worldwide ambassadors. Launched in 2007, its purpose is to develop and maintain a mountain trail in the country, as well as encourage responsible rural tourism, developing the country’s mountains and the communities living there. The trail is currently marked on around 60 percent of its 470 km stretch and LMTA is working on installing information panels in 28 of the villages on the trail, which extends from Andqet in the north to Marjayoun in the south.
Their annual springtime Thru Walk along the picturesque trail started with only 10 hikers in 2009 and this year has grown to 180. The organization’s current president Nadine Weber estimates around 30 percent of the hikers come from abroad and says the trail is perhaps better known in foreign hiking circles than it is in Lebanon. “Lebanon is very beautiful and we have many people come again and again to hike the LMT,” she says. One man from Holland has been coming to hike for the past eight years, sometimes twice a year. “It’s not just the beauty of the land, it’s also the diversity, history, food and people,” she adds.
Locally the market for hiking is limited and the Lebanese are more likely to spend on traveling abroad than spending time in local villages but Weber says it’s more about promoting areas, and not just hiking, which is the primary reason foreigners visit. “Maybe we can’t convince the Lebanese to hike but they can spend time in the mountains, sleep at a guesthouse and go for a shorter walk with the village guide,” she says, adding that their aim is to inject money into these rural communities. As part of their programs the LMTA also trains locals to become guides, helps owners of guesthouses with renovations and training, preserves archaeological sites on the trail and educates the youth from the areas.
Similarly, the people behind Live Love Beirut are working on capacity building with rural NGOs, empowering locals on how to promote their work using social media and engaging their communities. They recently expanded with new projects like Live Love Tours, which organize visits to hidden gems around the country, and Live Love Festivals, bringing music, culture and life to different regions to attract crowds rather than just promoting them through photos.
“We are promoting a certain way of life in the country and we want people to work together to make it better. It takes time but we’re seeing the change in people’s mentality,” Bitar says, adding that he believes in Lebanon’s power of resilience.
While these individuals and organizations aren’t blind to the country’s troubles, focusing on these issues themselves won’t do anyone any good. Bitar says, “Definitely there are problems and it’s not that we don’t see them.” Throughout the trash crisis Live Love Beirut posted occasional photos of the garbage for awareness, despite it being at odds with their campaign’s purpose. “If we’re not positive who will be? There’s a difference between being positive and realistic, and we are realists,” he says. That realism turned into a short-term solution last year when they partnered with Uber to collect recycled waste. That didn’t last very long but in the very near future Bitar promises a specialized mobile app that works as a waste pickup request service with specialized drivers. “It’s frustrating because it’s taken so long,” he laments.
Many of the problems Lebanon faces are bigger than its people but there are brave citizens battling against greedy Goliaths and against the current of Lebanon’s unnecessary, man-made crises. “We are not just trying to say that Lebanon is beautiful. We are promoting the Lebanon that we all believe in,” states Bitar.
If beautiful Lebanon has a standing chance of retaining its natural beauty, the Lebanese, here and abroad, need to join together – not only in spirit, words and Instagram likes – but in actual actions on whatever scale possible. Let’s not lose faith in the natural beauty of Lebanon while we can still see it. Start with a bike ride, a hike or even a drive this weekend to appreciate what we still have – it may be a first step to inspire concrete action to preserve this land.