BEIRUT: A recent commercial by the energy drink company Red Bull shot inside Lebanon’s famous Jeita Grotto may have received nationwide acclaim, but caretaker Tourism Minister Fadi Abboud told The Daily Star Sunday that his ministry observed a number of violations and would be taking the grotto’s managing company to court. “We are taking them [MAPAS] to court, we don’t think this was a proper commercial advertisement,” Abboud told The Daily Star. The ministry already sent warnings to the company and called on Red Bull to stop airing the commercial.
“[They] are making our national entity into a subject of commercialization,” he added.
The private company MAPAS won the right to invest in the grotto in 1993, a decision issued by then Tourism Minister Nicolas Fattoush, in order to rehabilitate it after the Civil War. The duration of the agreement has been extended many times and the current one will expire in 2022.
According to Abboud, the Tourism Ministry was not involved in the commercial, nor was it aware that it was being shot. MAPAS also did not have permission from the ministry to shoot the commercial, making it “totally illegal,” Abboud said.
In the commercial, the title of which was “Red Bull: Awaken the Grotto,” the Austrian energy drink company had Dutch wakeboarder Duncan Zuur, clad in Red Bull gear, perform stunts inside the grotto, never before done in the cave.
The commercial, which runs just under three minutes, shows Zuur maneuvering and doing tricks on a board in the water. It also features a boat ramp that was set up specially for the commercial, on which Zuur performs jumps, slides and tricks in midair. The camera then focuses in on the stalactites and stalagmites in the grotto.
Jeita Grotto is a compound of crystallized caves located 20 km north of Beirut in the Nahr al-Kalb Valley. The two giant underground vaults attract around 400,000 visitors each year and are laden with an awe-inspiring display of stalactite and stalagmite formations.
The grotto was a contender among the new Seven Natural Wonders of the World competition in 2011.
Following filming, Zuur said it was a “blessing” to be inside the grotto, adding that it was an “amazing place.”
“You’re in this environment full of magic,” he said.
“I was riding and making some turns and then suddenly I stopped thinking about riding, you know, because there was so much beauty around, from a world that I’ve never seen,” he added.
The video also shows Jeita Grotto manager Nabil Haddad, managing director of MAPAS, who said the commercial was aimed at improving the cave’s image.
“The camera will now be able to give this place what it deserves and highlight the distinctive and stunning nature of the grotto,” he said.
While Abboud did not deny that the commercial could help boost tourism, he said this was beside the point, adding that giving permission to one company to shoot inside the grotto might encourage others.
Abboud also said the company had already committed a number of violations, including excavating a new cave that was discovered two years ago, which was also done without permission from the ministry.
“This water is for all of Beirut, how can they wakeboard there?” he added.
Moreover, “absolutely no photography” is allowed inside the grotto, he said, as the flash could cause damage to the rock and calcium formations inside the case. The boat dragging the board also ran on fuel, not electricity, which could damage the water, as the Jeita Spring is the source of drinking water for over a million Lebanese, he added.
Abboud said wakeboarding could have resulted in a number of accidents.
“[Haddad] is acting as if he is the landlord, but the Lebanese people are the landlords,” Abboud said.
The Jeita Grotto is considered public property.
“[MAPAS] believe themselves to be above the law, and unfortunately, [they] proved to be above the law,” he said.
The ministry will refer the case to the Shura Council, but Abboud said he didn’t believe the action would yield encouraging results.
The ministry had previously aimed at employing someone to audit MAPAS’ accounts for the grotto, but the Shura Council prevented this action, something Abboud described as “unheard of.”
Abboud has also brought up the case to caretaker Justice Minister Shakib Qortbawi.