Monday, 23 August 2010

On attractions…


I’ve had any number of conversations with people recently about Lebanon, tourism, marketing of the country and the sights (and sites) to be seen here.

I’m a great fan of antiquity. I’ve seen the various Greek sites, Roman ruins, Druidic remains and Phoenician sites. Dotted all over the place, I’ve gone out of my way to visit important historical locales in any number of different countries.

And yet, there’s one right on our doorstep that isn’t given enough press around the world.

Baalbek.

 Wait, don't tell me, I know where
they are...

Baalbek is about as good as it gets. Phoenician, Greek and Roman ruins. Inscriptions from historical figures. It’s all there.

Yet … it’s not marketed. Nobody knows about the place. When I first went home on holiday during my first stint in Beirut, I always encouraged (and still do) people to visit Lebanon. The answer’s always, “Why?”

Well, there’s Baalbek. It’s as impressive as the Athenian Acropolis, it’s older, too. There’s Byblos, the oldest inhabited place on the planet (OK, there are a lot of places that claim the same, but sod it, I’m biased). There’s Tyre: The site where Alexander the Great built a great big frickin’ causeway into the sea, literally leaving his mark on the world not to mention one of the largest hippodromes in the world. There’s the excavations in Downtown (a fully uncovered Roman bath complex for God’s sake). There’s Crusader castles, Ottoman palaces, ancient mosques and churches. Lebanon also claims the village in which Jesus turned water into wine. Saint George (England’s patron saint) was said to have fought the dragon here. Whatever your bent on history, it’s all here.

People tend to go quiet at that point. “Oh. Right. I didn’t know that.”

I’ve found getting around Lebanon’s, undeniably, violent past is comparatively easy. People tend to believe a long term expat.

That Lebanon’s ancient past is ignored amid the slew of marketing that generally aims at the “East meets West, Party Capital” bumpf is criminal. Yes, Beirut is a great party town. Yes, you should come and let your hair down. But there’s more to Lebanon than vodka shots, rooftop bars and exposed flesh.
 Lebanon's other famous columns...

That’s the wrong demographic to be targeting. People who are interested in coming to Beirut, and let’s face it, they might get out of the city for a day or two at most, aren’t spending significant amounts of cash. They’re young, they’re staying in hostels, and their cash goes into the sink holes that are Gemmayzeh/Monot/Hamra.

Lebanon should be pushing her ancient roots.

But, as this country is wont to do, the focus is all on the future. I understand why. But there’s a huge opportunity being missed.

My Lebanese friends often say that Baalbek (in particular) is known. They point to concerts held there. The whole country knows. People come home from the Gulf.

 That's it! The columns!
They were part of Mika's set! (SQUEAL!)

Well… yeah… Lebanese know about Baalbek. But then, Lebanese always knew about Baalbek. These same Lebanese don’t go there very often. It’s the ajnabee you need to get to Baalbek.

If you don’t, there’ll be no money to maintain the damn place over the long run. It’s already neglected. Case in point: Whenever my folks come to Lebanon (about twice a year) we always hit up Baalbek (among other places). The second time we went, the guide greeted my father and clearly remembered him, recounting a particular anecdote my father had told him the previous trip. … A guide … remembering a single tourist from six months previously….

Visiting the castle at Byblos I had to go find the kiosk guy in order to buy a ticket. At Beiteddine they had to go and find the tickets. At the hippodrome there were no tickets to be found. The guy didn’t know how much to charge. We had to get out our Lonely Planet (back in the day when Lebanon had its own edition) to show him how much the guidebook said was the going rate….

Urrggghhhh….

Not good. Not good.

 Lonely Planet editors: Not the
most politically sensitive...

Pop Quiz (Answer without resorting to Google)
Why is Nahr al Keleb (Dog River) named as it is?

Answers on a postcard, the winner gets a special prize.

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This particular rant was brought to you by Chateaus Kouroum and Kefraya.

While taking a tour of Kefraya’s vineyard this weekend, we were told that the Lebanon had been the site of winemaking since Phoenician times. This was met with cries of incredulity from others on the tour. Hence the diatribe. Once the bulging vein on my forehead had receded I decided to blog… sorry, rant, on this issue.

Disclaimer: This is not a reflection on either Chateaus Kefraya or Kouroum. Though, the former is pretty pretentious.