x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 22 October 2017

Lebanon rubbishes its tourism industry

There are talented and committed green activists who can offer affordable solutions to processing our garbage, but they must be taken seriously and brought onto government committees. 

About 20 years ago, I attended a trade seminar in Beirut hosted by a German tourism expert. Back then, Lebanon was poised to unveil itself as the pre-eminent destination for Arab tourists, but Beirut was also making an effort to woo the western traveller.

I remember the talk because but he touched on an issue that was to be particularly prophetic. Describing the typical long haul traveller (I can’t remember if he was talking about Germans in particular, but it makes no difference) who might be persuaded to visit a niche country like Lebanon, one that had the potential to offer historical and religious tourism, he said that local tour guides need to be really knowledgeable because the modern (German?) tourist was scarily up to speed on local attractions and will have read up extensively on where they were going.

Someone in the audience reminded him that we could offer eco-tourism. He didn’t seem convinced but at the same time didn’t want to be rude. “The modern traveller,” he said, and I’m paraphrasing here, “is unforgiving when they see poor environmental controls. Most tourists,” and here he was referring to a category that today we would call the empty nesters, professional couples whose kids have flown the coop and who now have disposable income, “have a zero tolerance for badly managed environmental policies. They will never come back.” There was an uncomfortable silence and we quick moved on to the next item.

We never captured the western long haul traveller. Like the bending river, the Lebanese took the path of least resistance and we focused on the Arab tourists. We understood them and they loved us. Back then we gave them what they wanted better than anyone else could and they felt pampered. They came, quite literally, to chill out and unlike those fussy Europeans, who had obsessively gotten to grips with recycling and being greener citizens, they didn’t care about the odd bits of garbage lying around.

Our countryside is still filthy. And two years ago, around this time, Lebanon experienced a garbage crisis of almost biblical proportions with tens of thousands of tonnes lying uncollected on the streets of the capital after a prolonged dispute erupted between Sukleen, the company contracted to keep Beirut and its environs clean, and the state. For its part, the government, finding itself with nowhere to put the piles of unseparated waste, panicked and decided to simply hide it. Truck drivers were dispatched to surrounding valleys, clearings, parking lots and, one instance, a major underpass, and told to dump the refuse and drive off as if nothing had happened. You couldn’t make it up.

The problem hasn’t gone away. On June 17, The National reported that Lebanon stood on the verge of an environmental disaster after an alleged 2 million tonnes of toxic waste was dumped into the Eastern Mediterranean, all with the government’s knowledge. If true, and I have no reason to doubt it, it is an act of wanton vandalism that not only threatens to destroy marine life, including fish stocks that local fishermen rely on for their livelihood, it is also predicted to have a serious effect on the health of the local population with cancer rates already at an all-time high. But most importantly the news will have further dented Lebanon’s “green” credentials and if, the rest of the world gets wind of it, could wipe out what’s left of its tourism industry.

We can reverse the trend. There are talented and committed green activists who can offer affordable solutions to processing our garbage, but they must be taken seriously and brought onto government committees.

Lebanon’s economic future and its standing in the international community are directly linked to its environmental policies and these environmental polices can have an impact, negative or positive, depending on how responsible the state is, on a tourism industry that at one point could lay claim to 20 per cent of GDP.

Lebanon, the environmental pariah state? It’s unthinkable but it could happen. No one will want to live in, let alone travel to a country, that can send a Geiger counter into tailspin. We must act before it’s too late.

Michael Karam is a freelance writer who lives between Beirut and Brighton.