By Yara Abi Nader
BATROUN, Lebanon (Reuters) – While businesses across Lebanon are fighting to survive a monumental economic meltdown, the coastal city of Batroun is thriving as a tourist destination for Lebanese whose summer plans have been scuppered by the crisis and the pandemic.
Crowds stroll along Batroun’s streets and visit its historical sites, others sunbathe on beaches and many drink their nights away despite the pandemic and their country’s financial crisis dubbed by the World Bank as one of the deepest depressions of modern history.
“Lebanese can’t go for tourism abroad anymore,” 54-year old restaurant owner Maguy al-Mouhawas said.
“They find that this city embraces them and their children, it treats them like its own, and this is why there’s a bigger turnout.”
Mouhawas notes that more properties are being rented out or purchased and that more businesses are investing in Batroun, in stark contrast to the large exodus from the capital a little over an hour’s drive away.
Lebanon’s financial crisis has wiped out jobs, propelled more than half of the population into poverty and slashed 90% of the value of the country’s local currency.
Beirut is also still recovering from the aftermath of last year’s huge port blast that killed hundreds, injured thousands and destroyed large swathes of the capital.
Back in Batroun, John Bechara, who works for the municipality as a tourist guide, takes visitors on tours of the city’s ancient churches, Phoenician sea wall and main monuments.
“My love for Batroun made me look at every stone, every corner and every person I meet in the streets to ask about the history, and this is how I am getting attached to my city more and more,” the 54-year-old Bechara said.
On a random weekend or even on summer weekdays, the city’s streets, beaches, restaurants, cafes and pubs are full of life.
“This atmosphere was not created overnight. We knew our city is a touristic city par excellence, what you are seeing now is the result of 22 years of work,” said the head of Batroun municipality Marcelino al-Hark.
Small businesses and famous brands are multiplying in Batroun, especially in the hospitality and food and beverage sectors. Lebanon has recently eased its coronavirus restrictions and is recording low COVID-19 daily cases.
Many Batroun residents were pleased with the hubbub, but some raised concerns about the growing crowds.
“We love people and we love gatherings, Batroun’s people have always been hospitable and generous, but it is the traffic… there have been many problems because of car parking,” said 67-year-old retired chef Elias Louka as he walked through his neighbourhood on his way to go fishing.
But Mouhawas, who described Batroun as the “oxygen” of her life, sees nothing but added value.
“Paradise without people is not worth going to,” Mouhawas said, quoting an Arabic proverb.
“Fortunately, in this economic situation, our city is thriving so we don’t feel the economic and financial burden like others,” she said.
(Reporting by Yara Abi Nader; Additional reporting by Imad Creidi; Editing by Maha El Dahan and Raissa Kasolowsky)