Ban lifted, U.S. trade again looks to riches of Lebanon

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 miles.

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 bombed yesterday.

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 Temple of JupiterBaalbek 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 case.

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 Hotel.

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 office.)

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 accepted

  • There 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 for the embassy and for Saad Tours.
  • Operators are: Kutrubes Travel, (800) 878-8566; Travcoa, (800) 992-2003, and in Lebanon, Saad Tours, e-mail: [email protected].
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