Eco-villages growing like mushrooms in Lebanon

In the heart of the Afqa valley stands a tiny village which is almost cut of civilization. The 20 houses are mostly in concrete, with unpainted walls and no roof tiles. The children, wearing heavy sweatshirts but flip-flops, play on the middle of the road. The road cannot even be called as such since it is more of a muddy path, full of potholes and bumps where children and animals such as chickens, sheep and a donkey move nonchalantly.

Just after this village, above the road surrounded by flowering cherry trees, a cave sprays a gigantic pristine waterfall. With the snow melting on the mountains around, a lot of smaller waterfalls flow from the cliffs to join the river in the bottom of the valley. After the second turns, the waterfalls chorals starts to vanish while a wooden panel indicates “La Reserve.”

There, at 1,500 meters of altitude, nests one of the oldest eco-villages of Lebanon. The parking lot is invaded by grass and flowers to the point that people hesitate to circulate, thus choosing to park on the muddy path and enter the reserve on foot.

The ocher walls of the restaurant contrast with the green landscape of the mountains. On a plastic table surrounded by four chairs, three people around 30 years old and sit facing the forest and the sharp cliffs are speaking English with a British accent. One of them has a pale skin with blond hair, while the two other (one man and one woman) are thin, with brown hair and eyes and a tan skin. Two big cameras are on the table, next to three smoking cup of coffees. The blond man collapses on his chair and exclaims: “Aaaaaaah, that’s happiness.”

“These last three years, we noted a growing number of demands for ecotourism structures,” said Jihane Akiki, head of the Touristic Information Office of Jbeil. The Byblos Festival welcomed last year 50,000 visitors, and one-quarter of them were interested by green activities, she added

However, “ecotourism does not only involve walking in the mountains, “said Zeina Haddad, head of the touristic arranged caves department of minustry of tourism. Indeed, eco-villages also have a responsibility toward the region in which they are established, she added.

Eco-villages are defined as “structures which involve visiting natural areas with the objective of learning, studying or participating in activities that do not bring negative effects to the environment; whilst protecting and empowering the local community socially and economically,” said the ecodirectory.com Web site.

This need to rediscover nature and traditional villages became even more pressing after the 2006’s war and has been embodied by the growing number of eco-villages, added Hilda Bridi, secretary of the Beirut Afqa Reserve’s office.

The Reserve’s development represents this growing research of contact with nature, she added. It initially opened in 1995 as a center hunting, but Paul Arriss (the funder and the president of the restaurants’ syndicate) soon saw a real potential for ecotourism and decided to turn the Reserve into an eco-village in 1999, said Charbel Nehmé, the restaurant manager of the Reserve.

At first, 20 people could sleep and eat there, but with time the Reserve extended. It is currently equipped with wooden cabins and tents which have the possibility to welcome 200 sleepers while the restaurant can accommodates 450 people, added Nehmé.

Several eco-friendly activities are proposed, he added. At first, the Reserve proposed only hiking. The services developed with time, and the Reserve employees are now able to guide the visitors through mountains, to make them climb seven meters high natural walled, to make them walk at 1700 meters of altitude on the via ferrata, and to make them explore the biggest labyrinthine cave of the Middle-East, said Nehmé.

The cave is indeed a thriving experience. At the entrance, a small locked gate prevents the adventurous to sink in the cave without guides. While one of the monitors takes out a bunch of keys of his pocket, the other distributes the equipment to the group of visitors. The tens people put their light-incorporated helmets on, while the two guides wear a special type of helmet.

The originality of their equipment is the incandescent volcanic light which only burns and light when oxygen is present. Thus, if their lights turn off, it is compulsory to go back to surface. The cave inside wound the people with obscurity and stifle sounds. The monitors take muddy clay and paint the faces of the visitors with it “to prevent from bat,” he says with a smile. Then, one by one they dive in the humid and exiguous corridors of the cave.

In spite of the lack of advertising, the Reserve is well-known in Lebanon thanks to the word of mouth, said Bridi. The concept of this eco-village has so much success that the Reserve has sometimes to refuse clients.

“People are more and more inclined to listen our message: respect nature,” added Nehmé. Although the Reserve was first created with an educational goal, the financial aspect took a lot of importance.
Because the Reserve costs $200,000 at the maintenance each year, it has to cover its fees. The manager of the restaurant assures that the profits of the eco-village are “very good,” but he did not give a precise number.

The typical price for a summer camp is about $,1000, and last year the reserve welcomed 220 children during summer camps.

However, this eco-village also proposes many more packages for individuals, families and businesses employees from the beginning of May to end of October, so the estimated cost for last year is supposedly bigger.

This triumph gave the idea to a lot of other people, and the eco-village are now “growing like mushrooms” on the Lebanese territory, said Bridi. A brochure from tourism ministry inventories a dozen of eco-resorts, but a lot more can be found thanks to Facebook pages and Google.

This is the case of another eco-lodging, the Ecovillage which bets on another kind of eco-tourism. This village mainly focuses on agro-tourism and on the development of renewable energy, said Zeina Zahreddine, the manager of the village.

This eco-structure is located next to the Dmit River, in the Shouf area. Only 15 minutes far from the highway, it gives the impression to be alone on this world. The surrounding mountains are wooded with gigantic pines trees, and the river flows to finally form an unspoiled lake sheltered by big green trees. The housings do not denaturalize this landscape since they are all made of bamboos, wood, and palm leaves.

This project, entirely financed by Karim Al-Khatib, opened in 2005. It started with the goal to cultivate organic food, and it is currently qualified by the Mediterranean Institute of Certification. The restaurant of the village serves 70 per cent of their organic farm’s food, said Zahreddine.

However, the project is more than an organic farm since it also instructs visitors on nature and its cycle, she added. “If we respect the cycle of nature, its treasures are inexhaustible,” said Zahreddine.
Thanks to the eco-systems classes of the village, the visitors have the opportunity to understand the biological cycles of plants, animals and human beings. The Ecovillage also teaches the art of organic agriculture and how to create healthy soil (especially how to recycle organic wastes), how to propagate seeds correctly, and how to start a basic garden, she added.

Several other eco-responsible classes are given but the responsible way of camping strikes the most by its originality and ecological principle. The village is built in an eco-architecture style (using mainly renewable material such as bamboo, wood or even mud) thus creating tree houses, huts and tents. The energy there is mostly renewable thanks to solar energy and biofuel. Even the infrastructure aims at a minimal waste since the center is equipped with dry toilets, meaning that they use compost instead of water.

Ecovillage also disposes of several eco-entertaining activities such as hiking, rock-climbing, zipline, swimming in the river and several others. Ecovillage aims at instructing on the importance of nature and its benefits while entertaining the visitors. This educative/amusing formula proves its success since it received 1,600 visitors including 500 foreigners last year, added Zahredine. Moreover, since 2005, the number of clients has been constantly growing, she added.

However, this year it could be slightly different due to the political tumult of the Middle-East, said Akiki. The ministry of tourism fears a decline of Arab’s people visits, said Haddad.

Last year, Lebanon received 894,000 Arab tourists. The political problems in the Arab region may reduce this number by more than half, but the eco-tourism structures are not worried because of the growing number of foreign visitors.

Last year, 549,000 European tourists came to Lebanon, and some of them stopped by eco-villages. Indeed, the Reserve received a consequent number of European thanks to the Lebanese Mountain Trail (which is a group of long-distance hiking trail).

This year they passed by 75 Lebanese villages, browsing 400 km from the North to the South of the territory, said Haddad. The guides are Lebanese, but a growing number of hikers were coming from France and Italy, added Nehmé. The Ecovillage also had a growing number of European tourists, and noted an increase in American visitors, said Zahredine.

Since eco-tourism is already developed in Europe and USA, the tourists from this part of the world usually like to try the Lebanese eco-structures, added Akiki. Therefore, eco-villages add a consequent value to Lebanese tourism.

Eco-villages have a lot of other touristic advantages, said Akiki. First of all, since they educate people to respect and protect nature, they almost do not pollute, said Nehmé. For example, the Reserve do not throw the garbage on the road, or burn them, but send trucks to get them to dumps, he added.

Moreover, eco-lodging actively participate in the development of the surrounding villages, thus supporting the traditional products, and giving each village its own identity, said Akiki. For instance, the major part of fruits and vegetables served in the Reserve comes from the villages of Afqa region, said Nehmé. The specialty of Afqa is to cultivate cherries. Usually the visitors from the Reserve really appreciate these fruits and take the habits to buy cherries coming from this region, added Bridi.

The surroundings villages also benefit from the eco-village since it creates employment, added Akiki. Thus, during the high-season when the Reserve usually needs about 50 employees, the majority of them come from the area, added Nehmé.

In spite of the ministry being aware of the many positive sides of the eco-villages, their action to empower this type of tourism is quasi-inexistent, said Nehmé. Indeed, all the eco-villages were funded by private funds only. Nehmé and Zahredine declared that they had no financial help from the ministry.

Even the infrastructures around the eco-villages are not taken into account, added Nehmé. For example, the road to get to Afqa is not maintained. With time, the road deteriorated to the point that it can be dangerous to drive on it, he added. “I do not want the minister to give me money or anything else. I just need a good road,” he added.

For its part, the ministry is well aware of the potential of eco-destinations, said Haddad. The problem is purely administrative as the minister does not have a department dedicated to eco-tourism, she said.

However, it is working to create this new department, but “the procedure takes ages,” added Haddad.
This ministry’s interest for eco-tourism began at the Conference on Eco-tourism in Canada in 2002. Someone from the Lebanese ministry of tourism was delegated to attend the conference there, and since then, the ministry is working to develop eco-destinations, added Haddad.

For now, the department for the touristic development takes in charge the eco-tourism activities. The role of the ministry is more of promoting than financing. For example, the ministry prints brochures which praises the merits of eco-tourism and which gives some contacts, said Haddad.

Also, the ministry is currently working on a flexible legislation to regulate guest houses and eco-lodging. Since this phenomenon is quite new, this type of accommodation still lacks its own kind of permit. With this law, the ministry would like to simplify the opening of the eco-structures, thus encourage it, added Haddad.

On a long term, the ministry would like to merge historical tourism with eco-tourism, because it has a lot of potential for the Lebanese people and the foreigners, she said. For example, some tourists could go visit the temple of Baalbeck and eco-visit the region of the Bekaa, said Haddad.

This merge would have several benefits since it will teach the Lebanese to adopt an eco-attitude. With this style of life, the nature would be more respect, cleaner and thus more exploitable.

On the tourism side, it would be a great incentive to develop traditional products and thus to invigorate the Lebanese economy, said Akiki.

This country has potential which needs to be exploited, said Haddad. Lebanon is a canvas of landscapes which contains varieties of ecosystems. It is quietly rare in a country of this size.