EcoVillage on Beirut’s Outskirts Highlights Challenges to Sustainable Tourism in Lebanon
“Back to nature” trips are recent developments aimed at cashing in on the global trend towards ecological tourism
A mere 18 miles outside Lebanon’s polluted, congested capital city, Beirut, lies EcoVillage — a haven for nature lovers who want to leave the smog of the city behind for at least a day or a weekend. Tucked away in a wooded mountain valley, EcoVillage is only accessible via a bumpy road that leads steeply downhill to the small self-sustained camp. Arriving visitors find themselves in a parallel-universe in stark contrast with the pretentious Beiruti lifestyle, where the greatest luxury is the choice of lodging — a mud hut, a wooden tree house, or a simple tent.
Photo by Vanessa Kellerhals
Founder Karim al Khatib’s goal is to offer an “ecological experience at your fingertips,” and to promote ecotourism, organic agriculture, and a healthy lifestyle in a country ruled by excessive consumption on one hand and on the other, recurring conflicts that keep international tourists away and locals in their homes.
The project started off as Lebanon’s first completely organic farm in 2005, abstaining from pesticides, hormones, and artificial fertilizers. Al Khatib, who used to be in the restaurant business, bought the remote 45 acres land after years of envying the farmers who delivered fresh produce to the restaurant kitchens for their work close to nature. His initial aim was to deliver organic products to restaurants, but as an increasing number of friends asked permission to camp at his farm on weekends, the place grew into a campsite made with natural, renewable resources. The loan Al Khatib had taken out to establish EcoVillage finally gave him the idea to make the project profitable.
Today, EcoVillage is a completely developed camp of 15 quarters with 50 beds. A simple buffet-style restaurant serves three healthy meals a day with farm-grown vegetables like cucumber, eggplant, tomato, and chilli, and meat bought from local butchers. Sign boards are set up to explain the eco-friendly fittings and different bins for garbage separation raise awareness about recycling, a procedure rarely followed in Lebanon. The water used in the kitchen and the bathrooms comes from a natural spring and is diverted back into the earth after usage. Only biodegradable soap is used for washing and bathing. Toilet water is fed to a bio-digester and recycled and the shower water is heated by solar panels. A micro hydro turbine installed in a nearby river generates enough electricity to provide power for the kitchen during the day and to the lodging areas and the public bathrooms at night.
Besides individual guests, Al Khatib also hosts school groups seeking to bring local children closer to nature. He hopes that these children will remember what they saw and learned in EcoVillage. Maybe if some of them grow up to be architects, they will plan buildings more eco-friendly than what is the current standard in Lebanon, he says.
Photo courtesy EcoVillage
It is not easy to implement a sustainable lifestyle in Lebanon. Just finding organic produce can be a difficult and expensive, mainly due to a lack of governmental regulations, says Nour Abou Haydar, a young Lebanese who works at EcoVillage for the summer to escape the urban life. A report published earlier this year in The Daily Star, Lebanon found that some local produce contained close to 25 times more chemicals than the limit set by international standards. This is especially grave because Lebanon’s main agricultural district, the Bekaa valley, is known as the Middle East’s “fruit basket” with a climate favourable for farming and vineyards, which produce some very fine wine.
Part of the problem is that most Lebanese are not used to sustainable thinking and recycling. In many families across all social levels, all adult members possess their own cars — big, fuel-consuming models are favoured status symbols for those who can afford it. Fast food chains serving junk food are popping up at every street corner, offering free home delivery, and people still use fuel-driven generators during power outages. Abou Haydar says even people who visit EcoVillage don’t always apply the message it aims to spread to their lives. This summer employees found a hollow in a rock by the river overflowing with cigarettes that their guests used as an ashtray.
And I have to say, EcoVillage’s activities too, aren’t always that well thought out. When I stayed there last month, one of the activities on offer was rock painting in the river. The instruction was to colour any rock or stone protruding from the water with acrylic paint. Brushes were rinsed out in the river. It was a lot of fun but I doubt dissolving acrylic paint in the river water can have a positive environmental impact.
Photo by Vanessa Kellerhals
Attracting tourists to EcoVillage is rather challenging these days because of increasing unrest in the region. Official figures show 24.2 decline in tourists visiting Lebanon in the first seven months of 2013 compared to the same months in 2011. The spillover from the current conflict in neighboring Syria and car bombing incidents in the capital and the northern city of Tripoli is hurting the industry. Many restaurants in Beirut have closed down and hotels have to cut back on employees. Even Al Khatib had to lay off staff. In a good year, he usually hosts up to 3,500 guests at EcoVillage, including the school trips and day visitors, but only 1,500 to 2,000 people find their way to the retreat in years affected by violent incidents like last month’s bombing in Beirut.
Right now, Lebanon is bracing for a US military strike on Syria. In late August, the streets in Beirut were empty because the population was scared of a seemingly imminent attack. At EcoVillage, Al Khatib spoke about how in August 2006, when Israel bombed Lebanon, people in the cities had to survive without power and ran out of food supplies. At the time, he fled with family and friends to EcoVillage, where they were safe from the bombings and had self-generated electricity and homegrown food. But Khatib says most of the population does not see the advantages of breaking free from this dependency yet.
Eco-lodges and “back to nature” trips are recent developments in Lebanon, aimed at profiting from the global trend towards sustainable, ecological tourism. The Tourism Ministry has been trying to boost the industry with publications about eco-friendly projects and plans that include the rural population in tourism development projects. However, some of the activities it promotes, such as shooting competitions and snowmobile rides are exciting for sure, but are more likely to harm the environment than promote sustainability.
Clearly, eco-tourism in Lebanon has still a long way to go until it becomes sustainable. Currently, it is just pointing the way back to nature. Hopefully, an actual change in mindset and efficient legal regulations safeguarding the Lebanese environment will soon follow.