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Sun 23 Dec 2007 11:57 AM

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Out of hibernation

Leisure travellers looking for Eid and Christmas getaways this winter need look no further than Lebanon.

Lebanon, the Middle East's leading skiing destination, is preparing to welcome back the region's short-haul ski fraternity with open arms after an aborted season last year.

The Lebanese travel industry is still recovering from the impact of last year's conflict with Israel, which sent visitor numbers plummeting after what looked like a promising start to the year.

Tourism has recovered considerably and occupancy is returning to healthy levels.

The country was on track to set a new national record for tourist arrivals in the first half of 2006, with arrivals for the first half up 44% from 367,000 in 2005 to 528,000, according to the Ministry of Tourism, but by the end of the year, the overall annual arrivals fell by 7%.

According to the HVS International 2007 Lebanon Country Snapshot, investors had planned to build 11 hotels in Beirut's Central Business District (CBD) and the surrounding area before last year's hostilities began, but most of those projects are now on hold.

"Although none of the country's hospitality, infrastructure or main tourist sites were directly hit, Lebanon's challenge will be to restore confidence among potential visitors from around the world, and has increased its marketing budget accordingly," says the report.

Nevertheless, the tourism industry has pulled itself together and despite ongoing tension surrounding the belated general elections, is going gangbusters to try to win tourists back.

Dubai-based Alpha Tours has a strong Lebanese association, making it one of the forerunning operators in the UAE for trips to Beirut.

"For us Lebanon will certainly sell as we have a large VFR and ex-pat Lebanese corporate following, so it's a given that we will have business to Lebanon," explains John Flower, product manager, Alpha Holidays.

"Having said that, the ski season is almost upon us too and I have it on good authority that some of the local ski buffs are still planning on heading to the hills outside Beirut - pending good snowfalls of course."

Although Lebanon is more popular during the summer months there is plenty to attract leisure visitors this winter, with a city break combined with a ski holiday recommended.

Lebanon's ski tourism industry is expecting to have a major boost this year, after being reinstated in the Emirates Holidays Ski 2007-2008 brochure.

Last year's hostilities forced many of Beirut's inhabitants out of the city, with many choosing to head for the hills and stay in one of the ski resorts in the mountains.

Consequentially, accommodation was extremely limited, which would have presented an availability problem for Emirates Holidays if it had included the destination.

"[But] it's back in the brochure this year, so we hope to have a lot of clients going to Lebanon again," says Marco Heinrich, destination development manager, Europe and the Americas, Emirates Holidays.

"It is always quite popular in terms of skiing. People would stay in the city most of the time and make day trips to the ski area. Very few stay in the mountain resort itself. There is also limited availability in the mountain resorts.

According to Heinrich, Lebanon is an ideal destination for Arabic families or couples that want to try "real" skiing but don't want to spend thousands on a long haul break.

"Everything is very familiar - they are familiar with the language, which gives them the confidence, and at the same time, they can just go for a day or a weekend to see if they like it," he explains. "If they don't like it, they can go and have a party in the city!"
One of Lebanon's leading ski resorts - the InterContinental Mzaar Lebanon Resort and Spa - plans to cash in on the opportunity afforded by being in the brochure and aims to have occupancy of close to 100% this year.

"Tourism has recovered considerably and occupancy is returning to healthy levels, so we are expecting a high ski season," explains Lina Matraji, marketing and communication manager.

Everything is very familiar — they are familiar with the language, which gives them the confidence and at the same time, they can just go for a day or a weekend to see if they like it.

"We are working with local travel agents that have contracts with the majority of travel agencies and wholesalers in the GCC, Levant & Europe.

Guests at the hotel have access to 85km of skiing trails, an école de ski with professional ski instructors, and three equipment rental outlets.

The hotel also features an indoor swimming pool, squash court, four-lane bowling alley, gym, cinema, kids fun centre and a 1200m² Les Thermes du Mzaar spa.

Also in the area, a small selection of four-star delux boutique hotels offer an alternative ski experience for visitors that want to stay in the mountains, but don't want to stay in a busy resort.

"The ski resorts don't do much business in the summer so they tend to hike the rates during the ski season," explains Edward Moufarrej, director, incoming department of Beirut-based tour operator Nakhal.

"Some of the nicest properties at the moment are Le Cedrous and L'Auberge des Cedres in the Cedars region. Both are smallish properties with access to ski runs and facilities. Personally I think they are the best in the region."

L'Auberge des Cedres has a range of one-, two- and three-bedroom suites and bungalows. The property features real wood-burning fires, a sun terrace, and rooms overlooking either the Cedars forest or the ocean.

Terre Brun is another popular favourite; a 45-room four-star property that also features in the Emirates Holidays brochure, he adds.

At time of press, the mountains of Lebanon had recently welcomed their first snow, and Moufarrej was expecting to see the first skiers of the season "in the next couple of weeks".

First time visitors should combine a ski holiday with a city break in Beirut itself, with an organised city orientation tour that includes some of the surrounding area.

Typical city tours tend to include the Down Town area, the Corniche, Chouf, and attractions such as Pigeon Grotto, the National Museum, Baalbeck, Deir El Kamar, and touristic attractions outside the city such as Emir Chehab Palace in Beiteddine in the Chouf Mountains, Moufarrej adds.

Popular shopping destinations include the ABC Mall in Ashrafieh and Bourj Hammoud, famous for its gold souk.

But everyone in the industry is aware that the future of Lebanon's tourism market relies on stability.

"Provided things stay relatively calm for a while, there will be a gradual return to Lebanon," Alpha Holidays' Flower adds.

"As a destination it always seems to bounce back.

The sales pitchGetting thereAir Arabia: from Sharjah, daily.
Emirates: from Dubai, double daily.
Etihad: from Abu Dhabi, nine weekly.
Gulf Air: from Bahrain, daily.
Jazeera Airways: from Dubai, four weekly; from Kuwait, daily.
Kuwait Airways: from Kuwait, daily.
Malaysian Airlines: from Dubai, three weekly.
MEA: from Beirut to: Amman, daily; to Abu Dhabi, five weekly; to Cairo daily; to Dammam, three weekly; to Doha, daily; to Dubai, daily; to Jeddah, daily; to Kuwait, daily; to Riyadh, daily.
Qatar Airways: from Doha, daily.
Royal Jordanian: from Amman, eight weekly.
Saudi Arabian Airlines: from Jeddah, three weekly; from Riyadh, four weekly.
Syrian Air: from Damascus, daily.

VISAS: GCC nationals and most European nations are given a free three-month visit visa on arrival.

CURRENCY: LBP 10,000 = US $6.64

PACKAGES

Emirates Holidays: prices for a four-night package at the four-star InterContinental Mountain Resort and Spa, Mzaar, including return economy class airfare between Dubai and Beirut, half-board accommodation and airport transfers start from AED 3576 ($974) per person based on two people sharing. Offer valid from December 6 to March 31.

Prices for a three-night package at the Mövenpick Hotel & Resort Beirut, including economy return airfare between Dubai and Beirut, breakfast and transfers between the airport and the hotel starts from AED 3185 ($869) per person based on two people sharing. Offer valid until March 31.

InterContinental Mzaar Mountain Resort & Spa: prices for a two-night package in a double room, including daily breakfast, choice of daily lunch or dinner at Le Refuge, La Tavola or Gauchos, ski package, including outfit, skis and full day entrance fees at Le Refuge starts from $175 per person based on two people sharing on a weekday. Weekend prices start from $220. Prices exclude 10% VAT.

Prices for a 30-night long-stay package in a standard room, including complimentary valet parking and a 20% discount on laundry and telephone calls start from $6150 for full board and $7350 full board, based on two people sharing.

Middle East Airlines Holidays: prices for a three-night package, including return economy class airfare, B&B accommodation, meet and assist, airport transfers, room taxes and service charge starts from AED 1400 ($382) from Dubai; JOD 145 ($205) from Amman or KD 105 ($148) from Kuwait. Prices based on three-star accommodation. Offer valid until May 31.

Nakhal Tour Operator: prices for a four-night package including three-star accommodation in Beirut; meet and assist service; round-trip airport transfer, breakfast daily; two full-day tours including lunch, entrance fees and guide; service charges and 10% VAT is priced from $395 per person.

Wild Discovery Travel and Tourism: prices for a three-night Beirut city break, including three nights' accommodation at the four-star Palm Beach Hotel on B&B basis, Beirut city tour and shopping trip, visit to Deir El Kamar and Beiteddine, transportation for all tours, all entrance fees and 10% VAT start from $255 per person based on two people sharing. Excludes international flights. Valid until March 31.

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