Someone must have been smiling down at Lebanon this past December. For the first time in at least five years, it snowed early enough in the year that the Cedars Ski Resort – home to Lebanon’s highest accessible peak at an altitude of 2,870m – began welcoming skiers on December 4 with the country’s remaining ski resorts following suit a few days after (all ski resorts were open by December 19). The slopes were in full swing over the winter break and therefore able to benefit from the increased activity brought on by locals, expats, Lebanese on holiday and some tourists, launching the 2016-2017 ski season on the right foot.
The snow economy
If the weather continues to bring in snow, this could be one of Lebanon’s best ski seasons in a while. This means that not only will resort operators reap in the profits of a full season, but so will the various businesses surrounding the resorts that range from the small grocery store owner to the five star hotel operator. During the winter season, the economy of the resort towns is snow-centric. As a spokesperson for Kfardebian’s renowned French restaurant Le Montagnou puts it: “It’s very simple: when there is snow, we all – the village and all the restaurants – work extremely well and are busy. When there’s no snow, we suffer.” But with the ski season lasting two months at best in recent years, resort owners have realized that for them to remain in business, they have to promote themselves as a summer destination as well. With these dynamics in mind, Executive took a closer look at some of Lebanon’s leading ski resorts to discuss their achievements to date and their expectations for the rest of the season and the summer.
Skiing among the Cedars
The Cedars Ski Resort is Lebanon’s oldest ski destination. As the owner of Cedars’ Alpine hotel Joseph Rahme recalls, wealthy Palestinians used to visit Lebanon in the 1920s and enjoy winter activities such as snowshoeing in the Cedars even before a proper ski resort was set up. The first téléskis – or T-bar ski lift – was installed in 1959 by Les Teleskis Des Cedres (Cedars Ski Resort), a company formed by four friends (from the families Fakhry, Keyrouz, Rahme and Sukkar) who rented the land where the resort currently stands from the municipality under a long-term contract. Today, their children have taken over management of the company. In 2004, the company invested $20 million into a complete modernization of the ski resort, including installing three new chairlifts and other modern equipment. A five star hotel, a few restaurants and a baby ski area were part of the second phase of renovation plans, but this all came to a halt with the onset of the 2006 July War.
Ever since the war, the low level of activity in the resort along with the internal instabilities and regional insecurities that surround Lebanon have discouraged the company from further investment or completing their plans. “As partners, we work in the resort and somehow make ends meet, but we have not returned our 2004 initial investment and are now investing only in the basic operational needs,” explains Elie Fakhry, one of the current owners, adding that it is all the more difficult to consider spending more on such a project when it is only seasonal.
Yet, Fakhry sees hope for the resort and the area for several reasons. To begin with, he believes there is renewed interest in the Cedars and speaks of the increased activity in the area during the summer due to the Cedar Music Festival, which was brought back by Strida Geagea in July 2016 after a long absence. Indeed, Alpine’s Rahme says his hotel was fully booked during the nights of the festival. Also, a 150,000 square meter chalet resort project – rumored to be a joint venture between Saradar Group and Carlos Ghosn – already broke ground and has Fakhry hoping it will help attract other investors to the area once complete, thereby increasing the land value. Finally, the election of a president and the stability that Lebanon seems to have been enjoying since could encourage tourists to return, many of whom frequented the Cedars given its nearby attractions such as the Cedars of God forest or the Gibran Khalil Gibran museum.
However, should these tourists flock to the resort to ski it would require a major upgrade in infrastructure. The roads leading to the resort are narrow, so the company has already worked with the municipality on rerouting them to allow for better traffic flow. While the resort can accommodate 8,000 skiers, the parking lot can only fit a few hundred cars and would need expanding.