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Hermel tourism businesses struggle as visitors stay away

HERMEL, Lebanon: Cafes, restaurants, and river rafting clubs in the town of Hermel are closing the curtain on a devastating summer tourist season, with little to show for their efforts except for additional debts they’ve taken on as visitors stayed away due to security concerns.

Touristic spots and shops in Hermel have fallen into a depressing daily routine of waiting for customers who never show up, and piling up losses since the beginning of the summer season.

Not surprisingly, political tension and the steadily deteriorating security situation in the Bekaa Valley are the top offenders. Several incidents of rocket fire and other spillover from the war raging in Syria have affected Hermel and surrounding areas, and tensions only rose after Hezbollah openly declared its drive to back Syrian regime forces in their battle to take the nearby town of Qusair in June.

Several dozen incidents of kidnapping-for-ransom have also plagued the northern Bekaa, with the victims ranging from ordinary people to rich businessmen, both Lebanese and Syrian nationals.

The host of problems comes after a decade of relative prosperity and growth for tourism activities in Hermel, spearheaded by rafting, kayaking and eco-friendly tourism initiatives, which came to form an important source of income for residents.

The growth in tourism was especially welcomed by Hermel residents, who have long-standing complaints about deteriorating conditions in local agriculture, and the failure by successive governments to provide enough support for industrial and development projects.

Over the years, Hermel natives have taken the initiative of opening close to 50 cafes and restaurants and 13 rafting clubs, as well as three environmental projects for tourists in the remote areas of the qada, according to Mohammad Jalal Mahfouz, director of the Hermel Office of Planning and Development, affiliated with the Union of Hermel Municipalities.

These establishments were able to attract approximately 200,000 visitors, divided among people from Lebanon and abroad before the spillover of the next-door war in Syria.

But as the 2013 season draws to a close, the sector has shrunk to some 10 percent of its former size, according to locals, and many businesses have been unable to keep themselves going.

Abdel-Menhem Abdini, owner of the “Al-Assi” restaurant, blamed the range of security incidents for the downturn, and estimated that 70 percent of businesses that rely on tourism had to remain closed this season.

Abdini complained that tourism enterprises, working under an absence of government initiatives to help them out, only ended up taking on more and more loans, and predicted a similarly gloomy situation for next summer.

Similarly, Al-Jourd, an eco-village at the center of a nature reserve that stretches for 150 square kilometers in a remote area between Hermel and Dinnieh and reaches up to 1,800 meters above sea level, has been devastated by the drying-up of visitors.

Hussein Allaou, Al-Jourd’s owner, said he has so far only received eight European tourists and has suffered losses of up to $20,000 so far.

Allaou said that he would usually receive close to 500 local and foreign visitors annually, adding that he was now considering shutting down his establishment if the security situation continues to deteriorate.

Rafting and kayaking clubs are also suffering the same fate, after several years of booming conditions on the picturesque Orontes River, according to Ali Abdini, the owner of the Laurant club.

Abdini recalled the days when several thousand rafting enthusiasts would arrive on a single Sunday, while during the week, he could count on a steady flow of around 50 visitors spending two days at his club. The per-hour rafting fees of $15 could generate close to $1,000 in income per week.

But in stark contrast to the earlier heyday, Abdini said only a half dozen visitors have shown up this year.

Abdini estimates his accumulated losses at $10,000 up till now, and he is getting ready to close down the club and move to Beirut to look for employment after the devastating season of 2013.

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on September 07, 2013, on page 4.

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