Freelance contributor Joyce Dalton recently visited Lebanon.
Her report follows:
BEIRUT, Lebanon -- In July 1997, the U.S. government allowed its
travel ban for Lebanon to expire. In spring 1998, it permitted
agents to issue tickets. Kutrubes Travel, a Boston operator
specializing in destinations "ripe for rediscovery," as company
president Kathy Kutrubes put it, immediately organized a 10-day
package covering most of the major archaeological and tourist
sights. Since "discovery" is my kind of travel, I immediately
signed up for the November departure.
Most of my images had come from television coverage of Lebanon's
disastrous 17-year civil war, which ended in 1992, or more recent
reports of skirmishes between Palestinians and Israelis over the
Israeli-occupied southern tip of the country. I didn't know what to
expect. The reality is a land busily rebuilding and reestablishing
its identity as the Middle East's financial and commercial center.
I heard nobody bemoaning the past, although gripes about the
continued presence of Syrian and Israeli troops were common.
Lacking comparisons, I could only admire the beauty of its famed
cedars, as my group strolled through a small forest near Bcharre.
Before the war, our guide said, cedars covered the region for
It did not take great imagination, however, to visualize the
destruction of Beirut. Although the latest in high rises tower over
some sections, other areas are works in progress. Here and there,
teetering structures, sides peeled away, look as though they were
For the first night or two, I hesitated to roam around Hamra,
the business district where our hotel was situated. By the third
evening, I felt comfortable among the bustling throngs, ducking
into great-smelling pastry shops, sampling thyme-filled bread
hanging by little dough handles from vendors' carts and dodging
some of the world's worst traffic.
By day, we moved from our Beirut base north to Tripoli, south to
Sidon and Tyre and east to Baalbek and Aanjar -- in other words, almost
to the extremes of this 4,035-square-mile nation. We roamed over
archaeological sites second to none; gawked at the icy fairyland of
the Jeita caves; explored medieval souks (marketplaces)
and citadels; visited the home of the poet, artist and philosopher
Khalil Gibran; toured the palace of Beiteddine with its gardens and
Byzantine mosaics; sampled vintages at the Ksara winery; learned
about mystical St. Charbel; wandered around scenic mountain
villages, and enjoyed lunches of 12-dish mezzes
(appetizers) followed by entrees and dessert.
Although Lebanon has attracted visitors and settlers since
10,000 B.C., it was the Phoenicians who built many of its great
cities. Between 3000 and 2500 B.C., these sailors and traders
established coastal city-states that became Byblos, Tyre, Sidon,
Tripoli and Beirut. The Phoenicians liked their cities 25 miles, or
one day's caravan journey, apart. This, and the country's small
size, guarantees that few tourist sites are more than a two-hour
drive from Beirut.
Over the centuries, one great power after another invaded,
destroying or adding to what had previously been built. Assyrians,
Persians, Greeks, Romans, Byzantines, Umayyads, Mamelukes,
Crusaders and Ottomans all were here. So were the French following
World War I.
When my group visited Baalbek, the country's most famous
attraction, the hundreds of modern invaders, armed with cameras and
guidebooks, hailed from at least as many nations. Many were cruise
ship passengers; others had made excursions from Damascus or, like
us, were on in-depth Lebanon explorations. The December issue of
Conde Nast Traveler printed an article about Beirut saying that
Baalbek "remains off-limits to travelers." This is not the
Official Washington is once again checking out Lebanon's
attractions, both leisure and business. In November, Greg Berry,
U.S. charge d'affaires, became the first U.S. Embassy person to
tour Baalbek since the war, and a luncheon meeting for the visiting
U.S. Secretary of Commerce tied up traffic around Beirut's Bristol
Lebanon's tourism ministry is taking steps to resecure the
country's place on the world tourism map with attendance at trade
shows, a supply of English-language brochures and interactive CDs,
an enlarged web site, fam trips and the reopening of 12 promotion
offices, primarily in Europe. (There is no U.S. tourism
In the past, Lebanon's beaches and ski slopes were big
attractions. Now, the focus is on cultural tourism, according to
Nasser M. Safieddine, director general of the National Council of
Tourism, who emphasized the great number and accessibility of the
country's major historical sites. Safieddine feels the ease of
combining Lebanon with travel in Syria and/or Jordan should appeal
to Americans and others who must travel a long distance to reach
the Middle East. Statistics show a 43% increase in the number of
visitors from the U.S. between 1997 and 1998.
Pointing to Lebanon's active private sector, Safieddine said,
"Every month, without exaggeration, at least one new tourist
facility opens." As examples, he cited the new Crowne Plaza and
Marriott. A second Crowne Plaza is due by the end of 1999.
While acknowledging the continued U.S. State Department advisory
for Lebanon, Safieddine expressed certainty about the safety of
Americans visiting his country. He is equally confident of
Lebanon's future as a tourist destination. "Tourism has always been
with us," he said.
English often spoken, dollars acceptedThere are no direct flights from the U.S. to Lebanon. Middle
East Airlines, the Lebanese carrier, and many European carriers
offer service from European cities.Obtain visas from the Lebanese Embassy in Washington or on
arrival at Beirut's airport; $17 single entry, $40 multiple entry.
Passports should not contain Israeli stamps.The U.S. Department of State has a travel advisory for
Lebanon.Arabic is the official language; French and English are widely
spoken.Fifteen hundred Lebanese lire equal $1. However, U.S. currency
is accepted everywhere. Vendors adhered faithfully to the
prevailing exchange rate.Major credit cards are generally accepted, but traveler's
checks are difficult to cash.Web sites addresses are www.embofleb.org for the embassy and www.saadtours.com
for Saad Tours.Operators are: Kutrubes Travel, (800) 878-8566; Travcoa, (800)
992-2003, and in Lebanon, Saad Tours, e-mail: [email protected].