Byblos plays to historic strengths

Subject: Environmental Planning
Author: The Financial Times

The following article was originally published in the Financial Times on March 18, 2010, written by Ferry Biedermann.

The coast road north of Beirut, the Lebanese capital , is an unlovely example of unremitting strip development. Nondescript blocks of flats set over small-scale shopping malls line a chaotic, badly marked highway that becomes traffic-choked at weekends and through most of the summer.

Only near Jbeil, the ancient port of Byblos, does the urban sprawl give way to a Mediterranean atmosphere, perhaps more in keeping with what visitors are expecting.

It is little surprise then that the quiet harbour and narrow old streets of this town, 40km north of the capital, have been experiencing a significant expansion in tourism. The town aims to offer a tranquil contrast to the hectic capital – while still being able to indulge in the famed Lebanese taste for parties and good food.

“It is different from Beirut. Beirut is the capital, the financial centre. Here it is for holidays, cultural and artistic activities. It is much quieter,” says Joseph Shami, mayor of Byblos. During the past two years, as Lebanon has emerged from a period of instability, he has embarked on a programme of promoting nightlife in the historic centre while also seeking to enhance the character of his town.

In the small, walled old port, packed around a fishing harbour, the transformation has been dramatic. Restored and partly pedestrianised almost a decade ago, the streets were largely deserted at night until just a few years back. Now, even on a Sunday evening in March, diners spill over into the cobbled streets in front of the restaurants while bars are filled with young people.

Mr Shami says the number of visitors jumped to 800,000 last year, twice what it used to be several years ago, when Lebanon was mired in crisis . Byblos and Lebanon suffered in the aftermath of the 2005 assassination of Rafiq Hariri, the prime minister, as well as from the war with Israel in 2006. But the country’s tourism industry has bounced back and 2m visitors came last year, according to the tourism ministry.

Byblos is trying to entice a good proportion of those along with domestic visitors attracted to beach resorts, a popular summer festival and its long history.

Even before Lebanon’s 1975-90 civil war, Byblos, which locals claim is the longest continuously inhabited human settlement in the world, was a tourist destination.

Pepe’s fish restaurant in the old port displays pictures of illustrious visitors, including Marlon Brando and Brigitte Bardot. But while the town was a playground for the jet set, it did not attract large numbers, says Rafael Sfeir, a former mayor who helped start development between 2000 and 2004. “Now it is much more significant in terms of visitors and the economy,” he says.

The town, lying in the Christian heartland north of Beirut with a only small Shia Muslim minority, was spared serious fighting during the civil war. Unesco designated Byblos a world heritage site in 1984, and cites its association with Phoenician history and its alphabet.

Another boost came from the relocation of a large part of the campus of the Lebanese American University from war-torn Beirut.

But unbridled development during the war means that unsightly concrete development encroaches in many places. “The old part is very small and when you walk around you very quickly bump into very dirty or ugly streets,” remarks a Canadian tourist. During the long civil war, the sandy beaches near the city were buried under piles of waste.

“We removed three metres from the top before we reached sand,” says Roger Eddé, a local businessmen and politician.

Since it opened in 2003, his sprawling Eddé Sands beach resort just south of the centre has become synonymous with Lebanon’s penchant for hedonism.
Mr Eddé and his wife Alice are pioneers in the redevelopment of Byblos. Apart from Eddé Sands, they were the first to open cafés, restaurants and upmarket shops in the old centre. Mrs Eddé says many of the products sold at the shops, such as handbags and other handicrafts, are locally made, “to encourage the local crafts industry”.

Mr Eddé’s plans for the area include a marina, a “green village” and a ski resort in the nearby mountains. Eddé Sands, which is known for its wild beach parties, now offers “wellness” weeks, a spa and an improved family area.

Mr Shami, the mayor, also hopes to enhance his town’s environmental credentials further. Unique in Lebanon, he has plans to introduce a park-and-ride scheme this year.

Visitors will be able to leave their cars at the edge of town and take free electric buses to the centre.

He acknowledges that it might be an uphill struggle to persuade Lebanese addicted to valet parking to abandon their cars. “We have to change some ingrained bad habits. But everybody agrees that it is much nicer to walk around our streets than sit in exhaust fumes.”

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