A rural tourism strategy for Lebanon – a great potential for the country’s tourism prospects and for rural communities. Martine Btaich, an independent consultant in social, economic and sustainable tourism development explains
Rural Tourism in Lebanon now has a strategy. Developed by Beyond Beirut in cooperation with the Ministry of Tourism, Hospitality Services and Lebanon Traveler and funded by USAID, under the Lebanon Industry Value Chain (LIVCD) project implemented by DAI – Cooperation and Common Action in Rural Tourism activity, and in consultation with over 150 tourism actors, the document provides key directions and practical actions to improve rural tourism and market Lebanon’s rural destinations beyond the commonly known sites.
What is rural tourism?
Within the local context, rural tourism involves “experiencing the country” through a variety of travel activities that have a positive impact on the local environment, local communities and local culture. It involves traveling within rural areas, beyond Lebanon’s big urban centers. Landscapes, nature, agriculture, food, and heritage are at the heart of the rural traveler’s activities.
There is a lot to see in rural Lebanon and rural regions can offer added value experiences to travelers away from noisy, often unhealthy and jammed city life: a relaxed and quiet environment, laidback villages and towns, beautiful scenery, adventure and discovery, fresh, and traditional local food, healthy and organic produce, reconnection with history, and hospitality and personalized services at small family-run facilities. Rural tourism offers travelers the chance to interact with locals and experience their rural way of life and their regional specialties.
While staying in rural areas, travelers contribute to increasing income and creating jobs for local people, including those that are often marginalized and have no choice but to leave their villages, their lands and homes to find a better source of income. Travelers also contribute to raising interest of locals in their local assets and motivate them to conserve this heritage.
Rural tourism is not new in Lebanon. Many pioneers and investors have developed great initiatives over the last two decades and the strategy builds on those existing programs. These initiatives are the starting point to suggest more synergy and foster common language and common actions among actors within the sector. The plan suggests taking action progressively and systematically to strengthen and develop these rural attractions.
“Lebanon’s heritage is a legacy and everybody is responsible”
The strategy includes marketing and communication actions that improve the visibility of rural destinations and attract more visitors. It recommends developing competitive and better quality professional services and products that are more appealing to travelers.
The plan also includes suggestions to further engage the local communities and municipalities to institutionalize tourism at the local level and improve the infrastructure, and decision makers to regulate work and enforce policies to manage tourism activities and preserve the local heritage.
Over the last decade, many of Lebanon’s rural areas have become highly urbanized. Unorganized and disproportionate building constructions and roads, destruction of mountains and forests, illegal quarries, unlicensed hunting along with waste and litter have invaded rural areas. Many historic sites and buildings are in danger and urgently need to be protected. There is still a chance to develop and safeguard them before they are lost, along with the tourism they attract.
The long-term focus of the strategy remains to build “a culture of rural tourism among the Lebanese and the young generation.” Lebanon’s heritage is a legacy and everybody is responsible. Implementing such a strategy requires a serious common action and cooperation between all stakeholders, namely all ministries, policy makers and municipalities. It is also the responsibility of travel businesses, NGOs, the Lebanese and diaspora, universities, schools, investors, the media and travelers. The strategy suggests a common action mechanism to follow-through the actions suggested progressively, advocate for the conservation of rural areas, advocate for policies, and ensure proper coordination and linkages among all actors. A serious will to follow-through is needed otherwise the strategy would be just “another strategy,” like many that have been developed only to be forgotten in drawers.
“We need to see more Lebanese taking the rural trails”
It may seem absurd for some, to work on a strategy in light of the country and region’s unstable situation, where travel bans are affecting tourism and the economy in general. Despite this and despite the many infrastructural gaps in the country, stakeholders can come together, prepare the ground, engage local communities to preserve what they have left of their rural areas and invest responsibly. It’s also the perfect moment to encourage travelers and particularly the Lebanese, either living in the country or working abroad, along with the diaspora to discover their country and participate in the conservation of their hidden and beautiful heritage. Rural tourism and internal travel is a great resilience card for tourism and for the local economy; and we need to see more Lebanese taking the rural trails.
8 DIRECTIONS PROPOSED BY THE STRATEGY
1. Develop and improve marketing and promotion to increase consumer awareness and the visibility of rural tourism destinations, products and services, domestically and internationally
2. Institutionalize rural tourism at a community level
3. Improve and enforce conservation and protection of the environmental, cultural, historical and agricultural heritage of rural areas
4. Diversify, modernize and improve the quality of rural destinations, products and services
5. Improve policies, legislation, and regulation of the rural tourism sector along with enforcement of laws across the value chain
6. Improve information and data collection and management to support sound planning
7. Develop the culture of rural tourism among the young generation and in the education system
8. Improve domestic and international business linkages and networking (cross cutting objective)
WHAT IS RURAL TOURISM?
Rural tourism products and experiences may include: walking; hiking and trekking; nature-based trips; conservation trips and ecotourism; sightseeing and visiting villages; agri-tourism including farming and harvesting activities, wine tourism and visits to wineries; food tourism including knowledge of regional food specialties and cuisine, food trails and food-processing activities; adventure and sports; biking and mountain biking; kayaking and rafting; camping; horseback riding; fishing; bird watching; craft-making; local festivals; music and dance; literary discovery and literary trails; visits to historic, archeological and heritage sites; religious tourism and visits to religious sites and trails; museums; accommodation in rural lodgings, eco-houses and guesthouses.