BAALBEK, Lebanon: The traffic on the approach to Baalbek extended for half a kilometer, but don’t be deceived: this is not evidence of the historic city’s weekend popularity. Rather, it is the product of checkpoints – one operated by the Lebanese Army, two by Hezbollah – bottlenecking traffic en route to the city.
Security in the Bekaa Valley city is high and tourists are few, but its struggling vendors and hoteliers insist the city is safe and their industry has fallen victim to fear – a fear they say is largely born of the city’s misrepresentation.
In a souvenir shop crowded with trinkets but not customers, Ibrahim Jamal, 25, blamed misplaced fear for the downturn in tourism during this summer season which saw the annual Baalbeck International Festival canceled in the city for the first time since the 2006 war with Israel.
Jamal said the fallout from the war in Syria coupled with the perception of Hezbollah’s role in the city had kept tourists away.
“People are frightened,” he said, but insisted they were wrong to be nervous about traveling to the town.
“The people are afraid because they see Hezbollah as terrorists here. But we are here. We see [what’s happening], and there is nothing [dangerous in Baalbek]. People are afraid only because they have a bad view of Baalbek.”
Jamal said he would work a second job as a sports teacher this coming winter to compensate for the losses at both his souvenir shop and his family’s hotel. Only two out of 45 rooms at the latter were occupied over the weekend, he added, emphasizing that both customers were Lebanese. Foreign guests, he said, are a thing of the past.
Mustafa Zoukra’s cafeteria next to the site of Baalbek’s Roman ruins is usually a lively spot in summer, with tourists often found enjoying chips and beers around its many plastic tables. At noon Saturday the place was deserted; only a couple of tables were set up – an indication that the quiet wasn’t an anomaly.
Zoukra attributed much of the downturn to tourists’ misunderstanding of Baalbek’s geographical location.
“Tourists think that Baalbek is close to Syria, but Baalbek is almost 60 km away from Syria,” he said.
This perceived proximity “scares people; they are afraid of coming to Baalbek,” Zoukra continued, insisting like Jamal that the city was “stable.”
“It is stable in Baalbek, there is nothing [going on]. It’s calm and there are no problems in Baalbek,” he said.
Outside the city however the impression has been very different.
The organizers of the Baalbeck Festival decided to move the event after a number of performers canceled or expressed hesitations about performing at the ancient citadel.
The city, a Hezbollah stronghold, and the Baalbek district were hit repeated by rockets from Syria following the party’s openly acknowledged involvement in fighting on the side of the regime in the Syrian village of Qusair just 10 km from Lebanon’s border in May.
Funerals of fighters slain across the border have also regularly transformed the city into a scene of pro- Hezbollah fervor over the summer.
Abductions are also common in the region these days, though so far Lebanese and Syrians, not Western tourists, have been targeted.
Also, a number of foreign embassies have issued warnings advising their nationals against travel in the Bekaa.
But Baalbek’s tourism operators dismiss these issues as causes for concern.
“The problems are in the mountains [not the city]. Here is for tourists,” Adel Omeira insisted as he sat with a group of men at one of just two stalls selling souvenirs on a stretch usually dominated by such stands just outside the site of the famous Jupiter temple.
Up the street from Omeira, Jamal’s 18-year-old cousin, who is also called Ibrahim, claimed the atmosphere in the city was good. Kidnappings aren’t a problem, the teenager argued, contending that the practice was between known families and was not a risk for the population in general.
Nearby a pair of men who sell camel and horse rides at the ruins nodded in agreement.
The animal owners said customers were so scarce that they and their groom were lucky to take home $1 each per day at the moment. The only things keeping them afloat are weddings and other celebrations for which the animals are hired.
But Hani Awadeh, who owns the 21-room Hotel Jupiter, charged that the tourism downturn was linked to more than just Baalbek’s perceived insecurity. Awadeh said much of the problem lies in a lack of support for the city.
“We don’t have anybody to tell some good things about Baalbek. Our Parliament is working with other things, they don’t take care about Baalbek,” he said.
Awadeh added that groups and organizations were promoting cities like Jounieh and Sidon over Baalbek.
Indeed, the performances comprising the Baalbeck Festival were moved to venues north of Beirut this summer.
Awadeh said his maximum monthly income this summer had been $500; in previous years, he could earn that in a single day.
Back by the ruins, the camel, Abu Hol, shifted his weight from hoof to hoof – no tourists passed.
The main worry in the city now is a car bomb like those in Beirut and Tripoli that killed at least 77 people last month, the younger Jamal said, but he feels that with Hezbollah’s protection this won’t happen.
Throughout the city, this faith in the resistance party was reiterated.
Minding his son’s phone shop, Khalil Ismail said that so long as Hezbollah had checkpoints and its security guards protected the town, it would be safe.
Likewise, at his photo shop, George Awad, Baalbek’s Christian mukhtar, praised Hezbollah’s checkpoints, saying that the party was cooperating well with the army to keep the city safe.
At his cafeteria, Zoukra, who is not a member of the party, agreed that Hezbollah was doing a good job.
“The checkpoints by Hezbollah are for security reasons and [in order] not to have bombs ... They deal nicely and well with people, they don’t create problems,” he said.
But although their faith in the city remains firm, no one believes the situation next summer will be different.
Taking into consideration the ongoing conflict in Syria and Lebanon’s own lack of government, Awad’s forecast was frank: “The future, I think it’s not good.”