St. Petersburg Times Online: Business

Weather | Sports | Forums | Comics | Classifieds | Calendar | Movies

Rising from the rubble

More than 10 years after a civil war, Beirut - with its museums, shops and history - is rebuilding its claim to being the Paris of the Middle East.

NEIL SKENE
Published July 25, 2004

BEIRUT, Lebanon - It's a balmy Mediterranean night, and hundreds of people are strolling down a new cobblestone street lined with sidewalk cafes, where hundreds more are talking, eating and drinking. In a little while, the younger, hipper ones will head a few blocks to Rue Monnot, to dance and party into the wee hours at nightclubs. Even on a Wednesday night, parking is not to be found.

Around the corner from the cafes, the renovated Parliament building gleams in the streetlights. Another block up the hill, couples snuggle on steps and benches in the shadows of the excavated ruins of old Roman baths.

Walk west past the basketball courts with the big neon "Hoops" sign and blaring music and you reach the high-rise Phoenicia Intercontinental Hotel, with its wide marble stairway, elegant lobby, a bountiful evening buffet and views of the Mediterranean Sea on the other side of the boulevard.

This is Beirut, and it is no longer the city of kidnappings and suicide bombings.

Emerging from the rubble of civil war, which ended more than a decade ago, is a city with the promise of again being considered the Paris of the Middle East. The settlement that ended the war in 1991 divided neighborhoods between Christians (40 percent of the population) and Muslims, and government power is allocated among Christians and the Sunni and Shi'a Muslims.

Confidence in the peace and the pace of economic revival has grown with each passing year.

You really can go to Beirut. More and more people do.

The Lebanon Ministry of Tourism says the industry was up 50 percent in the first four months of 2004 versus the same period a year ago, when the U.S. invasion of Iraq scared off many potential visitors. Even compared with the better figures of 2002, tourist counts are up by a third.

All the modern comforts

Visitors find a comfortable place to do business and plenty of ways to spend leisure time.

There is Paris-style shopping in the trendy Verdun and Solidere sections of the city. Top-quality hotels abound, including the elegant Le Bristol in Verdun and the Metropolitan near the flourishing financial district. A few miles north of Beirut, on Jounieh Bay, is the new Casino du Liban.

Foreign investment has been enticed with lower corporate taxes and easier visa requirements. And both commercial and leisure travelers are lured by the rich Lebanese cuisine, local wines such as the dry, fruity Ksara, and Lebanese ice cream - booza b'haleeb - so welcome on a hot summer day.

Beirut International Airport has a new terminal, with wireless Internet connections (access it with a $5 or $10 password card sold in the main terminal). Lebanon's Middle East Air is a revitalized, profitable airline, a partner of Air France and uses modern Airbus jumbo jets.

Lebanon's coastline is about as long as the Florida Suncoast - from Crystal River to Sarasota. Even at its widest point, Lebanon is more narrow than the Florida peninsula.

Yet this small country packs a lot of travel opportunity.

My purpose in visiting was to participate in a conference at Lebanese American University on ways to elevate media practices and ethics in the Middle East.

Lebanon, with a constitution and an elected government, has a good deal of press freedom, but many media companies are owned by political and business leaders, who shape what is published. Journalists are poorly paid, and many accept gifts in appreciation for favorable stories.

Relax, take a day trip

Even if it's business that takes you there, add some time for relaxing. Enjoy dining and nightlife in Beirut during the workweek (dinner often starts at 10 p.m.). To gain historical perspective, spend a morning or at least a long lunch hour at the National Museum, with artifacts from Lebanon's history as a trading center for just about every civilization in that part of the world, predating even the Phoenicians.

My choice of a day-trip was to Byblos (Jbeil is the Arabic name), about an hour up the coast. Its ruins date back 7,000 years.

Byblos has a small museum and a restored souk, or marketplace, featuring local crafts for souvenir shopping. There's a small but nice beachfront hotel and a casual restaurant in a restored building overlooking the marina.

Another day-trip might take you to the caverns at Jeita (pronounced with a long I), then over to the coast at Jounieh (JUNE-ee). From Jounieh, take the Teleferique, or cable car, up the mountain to the Maronite Christian convent at Harissa. There, about 2,000 feet above the Mediterranean, the famous Shrine of Our Lady of Lebanon provides a panorama all the way to Beirut.

Or you can head to the casino (there's a dress code - dressy for the tables, more casual for the slots, but no shorts allowed). Jounieh has hotels that could be an alternative to staying in Beirut.

Longer trips might take you northeast to Baalbeck, which has the country's most distinctive ancient ruins, or to the Cedars region, with what's left of the cedar trees that used to cover the mountainsides and are the national symbol.

At Bcharreh, a museum displays paintings, sketches and manuscripts, and the town is the burial site of poet Khalil Gibran. A little farther south is the Qadisha Gorge, with hiking paths along the top and the bottom.

Be safe, be prepared

Throughout Lebanon, prices are reasonable. Hotel rooms at all but the highest-end places are typically less than $125 a night, including full breakfasts. Most of the upscale chains have hotels in Beirut and some offer high-speed Internet connections in the rooms for an added fee. While hotel rooms can be a bargain, gasoline is about $3 a gallon.

If you rent a car, use caution. For one thing, there's a small risk of stumbling into a Hezbollah terrorist camp, especially if you head south toward Sidon and Tyre.

The more likely problem is that streets are crowded and poorly marked (even my large, $7 map of Beirut omitted the names of all but the major streets).

Driving is a continual game of chicken, with few lane markings or traffic lights - and many drivers treat even those lights as mere suggestions.

Lebanon may be more challenge than some people want. But if you like going someplace before others do, Lebanon is as old as history and just now being discovered all over again.

- Formerly an editor with the Times, Neil Skene lives in Tallahassee. His air travel and hotel on this trip were paid by Lebanese American University from a grant that financed the journalism conference.

If you go

GETTING THERE: Best route from Tampa Bay is by booking on Air France you'll fly on a Delta plane through Atlanta to Paris. Earlier this month, the Air France Web site, www.airfrance.com priced a ticket in September of about $1,420 round trip. Alitalia, from Atlanta through Milan and then to Beirut, is an alternative.

LEGAL REQUIREMENTS: A visa is required for U.S. citizens and costs $35. You can obtain it upon arrival at Beirut airport for stays of less than one month. To get a visa in advance, download the form and instructions at www.lebanonembassyus.org or call 202 939-6300.

HEALTH: No vaccinations are needed for visitors. Water is treated, but even locals usually drink bottled water. Avoid eating foods from street vendors.

CURRENCY: The U.S. dollar and major credit cards are widely accepted. Exchange rate is about 1,500 Lebanese Lira (LL) to the dollar.

GETTING AROUND: Rental cars are available but you must have an international driving permit; you can get one at any AAA office for a small fee and the permit is good for a year.

Lebanese drivers are aggressive. Roads are poorly marked. Taxis can be hired for half-day and full-day trips. Tours by bus are readily available. For-hire cars called servis cars are 1,000 lira, but they may stop for other passengers along the route (don't call these cars taxis, or the drivers will charge you 5,000 lira).

STAYING THERE: Upscale chain hotels are excellent. Metropolitan is a high-end business hotel near the Beirut financial district. Monroe Hotel is a great, lower-priced, alternative to the Phoenicia across the street, near downtown. Le Bristol is tops in the shopping district.

Smaller independents are a gamble. For beachgoers, Movenpick on the west side is best. Most major Beirut hotels and tourism services have Web sites. You can usually arrange bus tours or hire cars on a daily basis after you arrive.

If you are considering a trip to Byblos, it has a festival in June that offers a variety of music from Europe and the Middle East. Several other cities also have summer festivals.

© Copyright, St. Petersburg Times. All rights reserved.