Beirut is Back! And so are Baalbek and Batroun and….

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The scent of gardenias perfumed my first days in Beirut in May 2012. Like the gardenias, Beirut is back in bloom.

Are you kidding me? Beirut never went anywhere.

When we arrived to Lebanon in May 2012, tourism crashed. And no, it wasn’t us! Due to instability in the region, the governments of Saudi Arabia and other wealth Gulf states instructed their citizens to avoid travel to Lebanon. That was as much politics as safety concerns, and Beirutis themselves were still out at restaurants, beaches, bars.

Beirut has been here all along. But as of 2017, the tourists are back.

I’ve hosted a number of visitors to Lebanon since moving here. You know, the hard-core kind of traveler, that doesn’t let things like a car bomb stand between them and their grandchildren. Or the adventurers that read beyond the headlines and realized that while fall 2013 was a dodgy time to visit (bombs in Beirut and Tripoli in August, Obama’s threats of military strikes in Syria), most of the rest of the time we’ve been here has been just fine.

I remember wandering downtown Beirut with my parents on their first visit in November 2013. We saw one lone foreigner besides ourselves and the migrant workers cleaning the streets. He wore cargo pants and a large camera slung around his neck—more likely a journalist on assignment than a tourist.

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A street cleaner, a businessman and two cops. Not a lot of other tourists back in 2013.

As recently as September of 2016, when we took my brother-in-law and his partner to Baalbek, we had some of the world’s most impressive Roman ruins virtually to ourselves. The visitors we hosted between 2012 and 2016 were intrepid, unperturbed by the utter lack of other tourists.

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“Where’s Wally?” Can you spot the other tourists? Baalbek in 2016.

I’ve been hosting guests again this year, and we can no longer claim the tourist sites for ourselves. I bump into Westerners with blonde hair and knobby knees. Chinese tourists with map in hand. The tourists are back—not in droves, but they’re here.

Last month I was back in Baalbek with houseguests, and *gasp* there was an actual tour group of international visitors. Minivan and all! As well as an entire busload of Lebanese tourists. On a Friday no less, not even the weekend. We went to Batroun and Byblos, and bumped into more tourists wandering around, taking selfies against the backdrop of the sparkling blue sea. We headed to downtown Beirut, and other tourists asked us to take their picture in the Blue Mosque, then we had to wait for other tourists to clear out before we could get the good shot of Martyrs’ Square with the mosque in the background.

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Martyrs’ Square and the Blue Mosque, downtown Beirut.

We headed to the trendy Mar Mikhael neighborhood at night and… well, the nightlife has always been great. But now, it’s better than ever. (Read this article by Gino Raidy on Vice.com for a great analysis of how Beirut’s nightlife has democratized since 2012, and check out this video on his blog for a glimpse into some of the city’s best nightclubs.) It took a while to recalibrate, but Lebanon’s tourism market has adapted to the lack of wealthy Gulf tourists, who were willing to shell out exorbitant prices for overrated hotels and restaurants. The businesses that remained standing are the best, and new ones have cropped up in the place of those that couldn’t make it—more fairly priced, more creative, simply better. Businesses also worked harder to offer tours and packages to those already in Lebanon (my favorites: Alternative Tour Beirut and Living Lebanon), including the development of community and rural tourism (check out the 60+ stands that will be at the Travel Lebanon section of the Garden Show in the Beirut Hippodrome next week).

If there’s something the people in this region have learned over the centuries, it’s resilience. Well done Lebanon, well done.

Is It Safe (or even Sane) to Travel to Beirut?

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Beirut Souks decked out for Christmas

Since my May 2015 post on safety in Beirut is my most popular ever, I wanted to post an update on the situation. Some of you are reading because you know me personally, and like to stay in touch and worry about me and my family living here. And some of you are reading because you’re planning a trip to Beirut – for work, or to visit your spouse’s family for the holidays. (And maybe someone somewhere is planning a trip for pure tourism, but I have to admit, that seems highly unlikely.)  You may have seen the U.S. State Department’s most recent travel warning, issued December 11th, and are wondering if you are in your right mind to come visit.

As I wrote this week for the Wall Street Journal Expat blog about hosting visitors, “If I thought we were at risk, I wouldn’t have my kids here.”

I acknowledge that the peace Lebanon does have is fragile. And it’s true that a bomb could go off at any time. There hadn’t been a bomb in over a year, and on the same day in November that I had scheduled a tweet linking to my post on safety in Beirut, there was a bomb. (I pray I’m not jinxing anything now by writing about the topic again!)

On the other hand, if I were living in the U.S., a guy with a gun could walk into my movie theater or my kids’ school and start randomly shooting at any time. There have been hundreds of mass shootings in the U.S. in the past year,* and one bombing in Lebanon in the same time frame. If I were living in Paris, I would have risked getting caught in the horrifying massacre that took place two days after Beirut’s tragedy. All terrible things, but not a reason to run away from Beirut or Paris or Aurora or Newtown.

I don’t embrace danger, but I also refuse to be paralyzed by fear.

Life holds no guarantees, but we can confront our fears rather than let them rule us. The Lebanese do an amazing job of demonstrating that principle, and in this regard, I hope to keep taking my cues from them.

My mother-in-law sent worried messages to my husband when the U.S. travel warning made the news in Italy. He sent back pictures of us having dessert on the terrace of the newly-opened Cheescake Factory here in Beirut. I’ll leave you instead with a few more images of Beirut decked out for the holiday season.

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Creative lighting at a posh clothing store in downtown Beirut. I love it!

 

 

*Mass shootings are defined as those in which 4 or more people have been shot (either wounded or killed). ShootingTracker lists 353 mass shootings in the U.s. in 2015 as of December 2nd, and Gun Violence Archive has recorded another 8 since then.

Is It Safe to Travel to Beirut?

This question has been popping up on my radar recently. Some friends cancelled a plan to visit because of concerns over safety. A US-based reader of my blog contacted me to ask me if I found it safe. On the Facebook page of a fellow expat in Lebanon, I saw the same question posed by one of his friends. Every time I’m back in Seattle, it’s the first question my mother’s friends ask, clucking over me and my family with worry.

Here’s my short answer:

If my posts are still coming from Beirut, I still feel safe here.

The seaside restaurant we ate at our first evening in Beirut. We dined here again last night, to commemorate our arrival to Lebanon.

Yesterday my family celebrated three years of life in Beirut (!!!). To date, the situation felt really dicey only once so far in those three years, back in the fall of 2013, when Obama was threatening Syria with air strikes (everyone was worried what the spillover into Lebanon would be).

The rest of the time, life is surprisingly normal, almost mundane. We go to restaurants and the movies, take hikes in the mountains and swim on the shore. The kids go to school and gymnastics classes, I write, hubby heads to the office. For the most part, incidents that make headlines happen far from central Beirut, where we live.

A friend of mine recently post to Facebook a video of people dancing in the street at a festival in the hipster neighborhood of Mar Mikhael. This was how my friend answered the question:

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While some cities and countries are safer than others (of course!), there is hardly anywhere that is perfectly safe all the time. We’ve seen mass shootings everywhere from a movie theater in Colorado to a youth camp in Norway, terrorist attacks in cities from Mumbai to Nairobi to New York, and “regular” violent crime, well, nearly everywhere.

Beirut’s violence is infrequent, but when it occurs, it is headline-grabbing spectacular. Like airline accidents, a car bomb is incredibly unlikely to occur, but the dramatic and heartbreaking results leave their imprint on us and, as terrorists hope, instill fear.

So is it safe to travel to Beirut?

Here is how the American who found my blog expressed her fears:

“My concern is primarily risks that I would face because I’m American. The crazy stories of kidnappings are the biggest fear factor, though I know those kinds of things are rare, especially in Lebanon.”

And my answer:

“While there are never any guarantees, Beirut is really totally fine, as is much of the country.

Kidnapping of foreigners is not an issue in Lebanon. So don’t stress about that. Not even pickpocketing is an issue. The worst case scenario is to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. But things are calm enough now that even that is not a reason that I feel is worth getting dissuaded over.

There’s plenty to see in Beirut – the downtown area has a couple of nice mosques, the Robert Mouawad museum and the National Museum are interesting, and you can’t miss a night on the town in Mar Mikhael, the current hipster center of Beirut. Rooftop bars are opening soon too, and those are world-famous. Byblos is a must-see, and not far from Tripoli. As I mentioned, your colleagues would be best suited to tell you how safe Tripoli is. They know their own city well, and would be able to ensure to keep you out of the sketchy neighborhoods. If there is any kind of flare-up in Tripoli, an alternative could be to meet them in Byblos, which is only a 20 minute drive away, but VERY safe at all times.

If you have a day to spare, you may want to consider visiting the Roman ruins of Baalbek. They are absolutely amazing, but a 3-hour drive away. If you’re on your own, you can book a day trip through an agency like Nakhal or Kurban travel.

And if you’re traveling in the next few months, pack a swimsuit, because it’s beach weather here now!”

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Staff prepare a waterfront cocktail bar for the evening guests.

So if you’re thinking about visiting Beirut, here’s my advice: leave your fears behind, and come!

We’ll be here, soldiering on. 😉

Note: No matter where in the globe you find yourself, it pays to seek out and heed local advice on safety questions such as where to go and where to avoid, how late at night to stay out, and how well you need to hide valuables when out and about.