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Lebanon tourism

Lebanese town of Jbeil sees record levels of summer tourism  Aug 09, 2009

Jbeil, or Byblos, is famous for being one of the world’s oldest continuously inhabited towns and the birthplace of the modern alphabet. It’s also getting a boost from this year’s record-high tourism season as foreigners and other visitors sample one of the country’s most diverse tourist towns, which boasts an international festival, layers and layers of history, a presentable public beach, and traditional souks.

At the é café in Jbeil’s old souk, the chef is amazed at the daily sight of a full reservation book. “I’ve worked here for six years, and it has never been so busy. It’s too busy!” he said.

Even with the record number of visitors in Lebanon, the streets and nearby harbor in Jbeil remain empty enough for a relaxing break from the hustle and bustle of the capital, while being close enough to be back by the afternoon.

A longer day can incorporate a visit to either the well-kept public beach, or a beach club that rivals those of Beirut.

The Byblos International Festival is coming to an end, but this weekend will feature its final flourish, a five-day run of the musical comedy “Summer of 840,” by the late Mansour Rahbani. The performances are held by the sea, with views of Jbeil’s ruins and harbor.

The celebrated ruins are what draw most visitors to Jbeil, and they should be part of the itinerary of any visit to the town. It’s one of few sites to have archaeological remains from such a variety of historical periods; during excavation, several structures had to be moved as they had literally been built on top of each other.

Guides are available from the ticket office for LL25,000 and can add valuable insight to what the ancient city once was.

“The site holds so many secrets,” said Ines, a German tourist, and adds: “I like to imagine what the city was like and who lived here.”

A stroll around the Old Town makes a refreshing complement to a tour of the ruins. The warren of streets has a Mediterranean charm and feels miles away from the main road of the new town that most visitors arrive by, with plentiful tucked away cafés for a cool drink.

An outdoor art exhibition is currently running by “Our Lady of the Gate” chapel, including the delicate photography of Nadim Bou Habib.

St. John the Baptist Church, nestled between the ruins and the harbor, dates back to the 12th Century, but the glamorous weddings often held there are another surprise attraction for visitors.

The renovated souk, close to the entrance to the archaeological site, hosts a variety of shops, from local souvenirs and interesting books about the region and Lebanese cuisine, or beautifully crafted clothes designed by Diane Ferjane in her Byblos boutique.

There’s also Mémoire du Temps, which sells fossils found by Pierre Abi Saad. On show and sale are fish fossils up to 100 million years old, each accompanied by a certificate of authenticity, and a welcoming, multilingual staff eager to tell the story of how the fossils are found.

Although Abi Saad has seen hoards of tourists come through his doors this summer, he says that his sales haven’t increased considerably, blaming the lack of non-Arab tourists.

“Everyone who visits has a brother or friend here, and is Lebanese originally. There are lots of Arabs too … But they do not spend money.”

Famed for its former glory as a key port of the ancient world as much as for its 1960s jet-set clientele, Jbeil’s harbor offers 15-minute boat tours, which don’t stray far from the coast.

A string of famous restaurants are located near the harbor, with some still known for their pre-Civil War heyday. However, some tourists appear to be put off by the air of exclusivity that remains.

One tourist, Harriet Gibson, found that her head waiter to be “very rude” when her order didn’t amount to a satisfactorily large sum.

And unlike most parts of Lebanon, a clean and orderly public beach shares the shore with the more high-end private establishments.

Residents and day-trippers alike are passing a nearly unanimous positive verdict on Jbeil in this summer of record-high tourism. The town’s laid-back attractiveness and friendly locals are still earning points.

As an employee at Memoire du Temps put it, “Byblos is the best town in Lebanon. It’s quiet and peaceful.”

Rosie and Charlie Hayes have come to Lebanon on holiday from Dubai, and think that the people of Jbeil have “got tourism totally right.” Their experience, and that of many others, has been one of “welcoming, helpful people”; this couple will definitely be coming back for more.

Lebanon tourism

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