HERMEL, Lebanon: Scenes of canoes and kayaks swaying gently with the lapping of water as river rafters laze away in the sun on the banks of the river await those visiting the Orontes Valley.
The valley has become a haven for nature lovers escaping the hustle and bustle and noxious fumes of the concrete jungle to seek relaxation in rural areas and the natural attractions that these locales offer.
With its abundant white water and big drops, the Orontes river is ideal for rafting and has encouraged local residents to open river rafting clubs, leading to a burgeoning eco-tourism industry with economic benefits for Hermel’s population.
According to the manager of Rafting Squad Club, Nour Maqhouran, river rafting has grown tremendously in the area and has been transformed from a leisure sport to one of the most important tourist activities in the country.
In 2010, the number of rafters who hit the Orontes River reached 12,000 and the number of visitors are expected to increase, Maqhouran said, adding that the rafting clubs have had to relocate in order to deal with the high numbers of rafting enthusiasts, especially on busy Sundays.
The manager of Aqua Assi Club, Mohammad Omeiri, said that there are several issues impeding the development of river rafting, in particular the entirely absent role of the relevant ministries and municipalities.
According to Omeiri, the municipality of the Hermel village of Shwaghir, which is responsible for the largest area of the river, used to fill up some of this void but its work is currently paralyzed following the decision of the state’s Shura Council to revoke the village’s recent municipal elections.
“This has transformed the area, with its clubs, restaurants, and fish ponds, into a state of total chaos,” Omeiri said adding, “there is a lack of a comprehensive plan or vision to face the various problems arising from this state.”
According to Omeiri, legal measures need to be taken to punish the cafes and restaurants that dispose of their waste in the river and fish farmers need to find substitute diets for their fish that do not harm the river’s water or the environment.
Omeiri also called for spreading the culture of environmental awareness, starting with students and reaching all members of the local community, especially as the Orontes Valley has become one of the Lebanon’s most sought after eco-tourism area.
The secretary-general of the Canoe-Kayak Federation, Ali Awada, recounts his memories of the first tour he took of the country’s rivers leading to launching the sport of river rafting in Lebanon.
Awada was taken aback when he arrived to the Orontes River. He found the Orontes ideal for rafting and decided to move forward with a project to transform river rafting into one of the most important financial resources for the area.
According to Awada, now that river rafting has occupied an important role for the area, it has become necessary to preserve and develop the sport especially to avoid safety slip-ups and accidents that could cause river pollution.
The rafting clubs in the area do not provide life insurance for rafters and many instructors have not obtained the necessary training, Awada said noting that this is the case because the Tourism Ministry lacks interest in the sport and has decided not to promote it actively.
Awada also mentioned that the Canoe-Kayak Federation’s work is working to strengthen relations with politicians rather than transforming river rafting into a competitive sport, adding that the championships organized by the federation have become mere publicity festivals.
Awada argued that the time has come to seriously develop river rafting in the Hermel region, starting with uniting rafting clubs spread along the Orontes River and formulating a comprehensive plan that will be adopted by relevant ministries and local authorities to regulate the sport.
The Canoe-Kayak Federation wants to establish a Civil Defense Center along the banks of the Orontes River and calls on rafting clubs to apply for the required, official license in addition to joining the federation to ensure their instructors receive proper rafting and English language training.