Monday, March 17, 2014

Too little, too late

[Originally posted at NOW]

Lebanon’s ski slopes have finally opened, but the damage to the winter tourism economy has already been done.

Hundreds of Lebanese turned up to ski and snowboard at the Mzaar resort on Sunday, 16 March, 2014 (NOW/Alex Rowell)

KFARDEBIAN, Lebanon – The queues were lengthy and slow-moving at the Mzaar ski resort chairlifts Sunday morning, but NOW heard no complaints as hundreds of Lebanese lined up eager for their first, and possibly last, chance to use the slopes this season.

The snow was spread thin across the mountains, the remnants of a single storm last week that interrupted an otherwise abnormally warm and dry winter. Only some of the pistes were open, with warning poles erected to mark places where bare rock was still exposed. Banners requested skiers and snowboarders avoid going off-piste, where the snow coverage was even patchier (a request that a few more adventurous types nonetheless ignored).

Despite these limitations, many of those who turned up seemed simply relieved to have skied at all in a season most feared would be entirely snowless.

“I’m not going to lie and say the conditions were excellent,” said one experienced skier who preferred not to disclose her name. “But I can’t complain, it’s better to have had something rather than nothing.”

Yet skiers’ disappointment at the very late start to the season (last year, by contrast, the slopes had opened by the end of December) was as nothing compared to the despair felt by the array of business owners dependent on the winter sports sector; from equipment vendors to hoteliers and chalet renters to restaurateurs and nightlife providers in the areas surrounding the resorts. (In addition to Mzaar, Lebanon has five other resorts, two of which – The Cedars and Laqlouq – also opened on Saturday.)

“Of course, there’s [been] an effect,” said Mahboub Salameh, manager of the Winter Sport equipment sale and rental store in Kfardebian. “This season hasn’t gotten us [even] 20% of the work we used to do in other years,” he told NOW.

And even if the snow does last another week or two, said Salameh, it will be of only marginal benefit to him, as business will be limited to rentals, rather than the equipment sales that would ordinarily form the bulk of revenue.

“There are just no sales. People are only renting or getting accessories,” he told NOW. “Selling merchandise happens at the beginning of the season, not at the end.” Even with discount offers of as high as 50%, Salameh said customers are unwilling to hand over hundreds of dollars for what will soon be one-year-old equipment when it can be rented for as little as 25,000LL ($17).

This drought in income saddles businesses like Salameh’s with short-term dues to suppliers that they then struggle to pay.

“All the owners of athletics stores [buy] their merchandise from Europe. They have commitments in banks [and] they can’t pay them now.” This in turn will constrain their ability to bring in brand-new equipment next season, Salameh added.

And the squeeze will be felt by many others apart from equipment sellers, according to Paul Ariss, head of the Syndicate of Owners of Restaurants, Cafes, Nightclubs and Bakeries, and owner of the Peaks Resort in Feytroun, some 15km downhill from Kfardebian.

“The ski season is a major element in sustainable rural development,” Ariss told NOW. “Expansion of housing projects around the resorts will be frozen now; hotels have reduced their personnel; students who rely on weekend work” at resorts will be out of pocket, and “many restaurants did not open in 2014 and might not open at all.”

The cumulative impact of all these losses is yet another significant blow to Lebanon’s tourism industry, which in good years comprises 20-25% of the country’s economy, but since 2011 has “gone into a coma,” according to Ariss.

What with political instability and the related security breakdown, the de facto travel boycott by Gulf Arab consumers, and the dwindling economy and paucity of tourists in general, the new Lebanese cabinet itself acknowledged in its prospective ministerial statement that there had been a “major deterioration” in tourism overall.

And against these serious difficulties, Ariss said this weekend’s opening of the ski slopes will be of very minimal help.

“One or two days of [skiing] operations is like licking a bone.”

Maya Gebeily contributed reporting.

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