The 2020-2021 season was a disaster for Lebanon’s ski industry, with intermittent lockdowns due to the spread of Covid-19 combined with delayed snowfall.
The closure of ski lifts has eliminated thousands of seasonal jobs in ski resorts and put the local economy – accustomed to packed bars and rowdy ski festivals – on the brink of collapse.
Lebanon comes from “Lebnana” meaning white in Aramaic, and evokes the image of the mountains covered by snow from December to April.
Snow is called the “white gold” of Lebanon as it is one of the main tourist attractions in winter, with sprawling ski resorts from the North to Mount Lebanon generating income for thousands of Lebanese.
There are six ski resorts in Lebanon above 1,700m and reaching 2,850m at the Cedars Ski Resort in the North Governorate.
Mzaar Ski Resort, located at Kfardebian in Keserwan mountains, 45 minutes from Beirut, is the biggest ski resort in the Middle East with over 100km of 50 ski runs and 20 ski lifts and 8,000 acres of terrain.
Christian Rizk, owner of Mzaar Ski Resort, told Arabian Business that “the ski season has been hit by the delayed snowfall and measures to combat Covid-19. We finished our preparations in September and October to receive the ski season, and we carried out regular maintenance work before the start of each season, and the French company in charge of checking safety measures came and finished its work as well. But things didn’t turn out as we expected.”
He added: “The ski season usually consists of 4 or 5 months, so if it starts late to coincide with the Christmas period, our loss is 30 percent, and it becomes 50 percent if it starts after New Year… this season we did not open one day, and when the snow fell in abundance and the slopes were ready to receive skiers and snowboarders, the total lockdown imposed to contain the spread of coronavirus has ended all our hopes for a promising season.
“If the national lockdown ends as planned on February 8, then the damage could be manageable. Otherwise, the ski business, which employs thousands of people, is bracing for a disastrous winter,” Rizk said.
Cedars is located about a two-hour drive north of Beirut. It is higher than Kfardebian, with a slightly longer ski season as a result. It can begin in November and usually ends in late April.
Reaching 2,850 metres above sea level, Cedars Ski Resort is the highest point to practice skiing in Lebanon.
Johny Keyrouz, owner of Cedars Ski Resort, told Arabian Business that this season has been a disaster for the local economy in Bechare region where 25 percent of people depend on tourism and ski activities, adding: “All things are getting worse like the situation in Lebanon. We have completed our preparations, and carried out maintenance work and some renovations, but the snow did not come early this season, and when it came it coincided with the general lockdown.”
“We we’re trying to attract more locals this season, with the loss of international visitors due to quarantines and lockdowns. We used to attract foreigner skiers from the four corners of the world, and of course, European and American nationalities working in the GCC countries, as they find Lebanon closer in distance than their country to practice the sport of skiing and cheaper, amidst a beautiful nature that doesn’t differ from the alpine landscapes,” Keyrouz said.
Elie Fakhri, director of Cedars Ski Resort, said that prices are affordable for all budgets in light of the economic and financial crisis in Lebanon and the devaluation of the Lebanese pound.
The losses have not been limited to ski stations but also to all the businesses associated with them, such as hotels, restaurants, supermarkets, shops selling and renting equipment and ski clothes.
Nicole Wakim, marketing manager at InterContinental Mzaar Lebanon Mountain Resort & Spa in Kfardebian, the only five-star ski address in the Middle East, told Arabian Business: “We witnessed a huge drop in occupancy rate due to the full lockdown which affected the businesses in the area. We only cater guests in their rooms as all other services and facilities are closed as per lockdown regulations.”
Marcel Saade, owner of White Cedar hotel in the Cedars, said that the occupancy rate didn’t exceed 15 percent this season due to the lack of visitors and skiers, except for New Year when it reached 75 percent. He expects a full occupancy if the ski station opens after February 8.
Gabriel Atallah, a passionate skier, said that he doesn’t understand why the government didn’t allow to open the ski areas, and that many believe it is possible to welcome skiers in accordance with safety rules.
“Skiing and snowboarding — outdoor sports in which people generally strive to avoid physical contact — themselves offer relatively little opportunity for coronavirus infection. If you take the precautions and you wear your mask, I don’t think it’s a high-risk activity,” he said.