Lebanon in a race to be a world 'wonder'
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Despite being in complete disarray, reeling from a recent war between Hezbollah and Israeli forces that left people once again deeply scarred years after the 15-year civil war between Muslims and Christians, Lebanon is vying for a place in the New 7 Nature Wonders of the World competition. Its bet: the Grotto in Jeita.
The Grotto in Jeita has remained intact despite hundreds of bombs that had fallen on Lebanon and pummeled the city, the outskirts and rural or agricultural areas believed to have been under militant control.
One cave in the world that forever remains enchanting beyond words is Jeita. It is located in the Lebanese capital of Beirut, near the Qadisha Valley, which has been declared by Pope John Paul II as a “Holy Land.” A most dramatic natural resource on earth boasts a “show” cave tourism site in a huge panoramic setting offering tourists and the Lebanese soothing views in the valley of Nahr El-Kalb or Dog River in the Keserwan region.
Located at a distance of about 18 km north of Beirut, Jeita accommodates two crystallized grottoes with natural sculptural beauty with rock formations that seem to glow in the dark. This rare and marvelous natural wonder features a lower cave where the visitor can take a short dreamy cruise on a rowboat for a distance of approximately 450 meters of the 6200 meters from the explored part of the site. Extraordinary formations of stalactites and stalagmites carved only by nature’s hands extend into unspoken oblivion. An upper cave displays views of imposing stone concretions in the form of cathedral vaults to a distance of approx. 750 m from the 2200 m explored section of the site. Sprawling green scenery as well as flower cultivation covers the vast expanse outside the caves. The site is provided with a ropeway, a small train, a projection theatre, a restaurant, snack bars, souvenir shops, gardens and a small zoo.
In December 2003, on behalf of the Beirut-based private company MAPAS, Jeita received a prestigious award from the fifth Tourism Summits in Chamonix, France. Les Sommets du Tourisme recognized MAPAS’ efforts in restoring Lebanon’s most incredible, most unique, most breath-taking site. Then French President Jacques Chirac, the United Nations World Tourism Organization and the World Bank previously accorded the top Sustainable Development in Tourism prize in 2002 to MAPAS at a summit dubbed “New Ties between Tourism and Culture” in Geneva.
Nabil Haddad, managing director for the Lebanese firm operating the site of Jeita Grotto, was recognized by Les Sommets du Tourisme for his efforts in restoring Lebanon’s most incredible, most unique and rare site. Based on the economic feasibility, the impact on local economic development, the social impact, preservation of local culture and identity, preservation of the environment and the sustainability, the equilibrium between economic development and the social, cultural and environmental aspects of the project were noted in the Chamonix selection.
Arab ministers consider Haddad’s project as a model of good management in a public-private sector partnership - a key factor in the success of sustainable developments in tourism. The award had a positive impact on the company and has given them encouragement to improve their service to tourists. When the Lebanese Ministry of Tourism assigned the firm to restore the site of Jeita, it was indeed a breakthrough. A private company in charge of the Jeita Grotto - a public property/ site that represents a national heritage - was a feat in itself. At the time, the government was looking for a new concept for rebuilding the destroyed sites in cooperation with the private sector, which has sufficient competence and capital.
Jeita is the most exotic natural resource on earth. It has an open natural space with trees and flowers surrounded by a rich verdure, two marvelous caves with fantastic rock formations and stone concretions and an underground river in the lower grotto. Visitors feel the real beauty of nature and admire the splendid magnificence of stalactites and stalagmites in our two grottoes; it is a testament of the harmony between beauty and magic.
“We need friends to support us by voting for Jeita. Lebanon is a small country in comparison with other countries with a considerable number of inhabitants. That's why everybody’s vote will count a lot for our selection as one of the finalists of the 7 Nature Wonders of the World,” said Engr. Haddad, also the coordinator of the National Support Committee.
When asked how he restored the grotto, he said: “A mammoth task was required of us - that is to protect the delicate natural heritage, at the same time, present a modern project in harmony with the environment while generating new job prospects. The objective was to implement an environmental tourism and to elaborate strategies for better preserving the natural reserves of the site.”
As the Jeita Grotto is a wonder of nature in Lebanon, Haddad’s vision was to offer this natural resource in its best condition to the public. Hadded said: “We tried to incorporate cultural aspects in the complex to let tourists explore not only Jeita Grotto but also discover the cultural variety of our country. Due to the fact that the Jeita Grotto receives the most number of visitors in Lebanon (then about 280,000 per annum) the government made remarkable profit from it. It wasn’t easy to introduce environmental practices in the site as Lebanon is an underdeveloped country and Lebanese people are not aware of the practices. The establishment of an environmental education was essential to the development of a successful project and permanently raising awareness about ecotourism.”
According to Hadded, to promote the project, they keep permanent contact with travel agencies, schools, associations, transport companies, municipalities and held regular open days in Jeita Grotto in which tour guides, taxi and bus drivers as well as local and foreign media were invited. “Consequently, the revitalization of this site has been a positive development in the tourism, economic, cultural, social and environmental fields. The success of this project is the reward for our tremendous efforts.”
Jeita’s features include a lower cave in which the visitor can take a short dreamy cruise on a rowboat for a distance of approx. 450 m from the 6200 m explored. Extraordinary formations of stalactites and stalagmites shaped only by the hands of nature were later discovered. An upper cave where tourists can marvel on foot at the view of imposing stone concretions in the form of cathedral vaults to a distance of approx. 750 m from the 2200 m explored.
The stability of stalactites and stalagmites is notable. Until today, no incident has been reported inside the crystalline caves.
Jeita represents a harmonious natural and cultural paradise with a mixture of tourism and natural heritage. With every single step, the visitor discovers through tourism an impact of the local heritage injected in picturesque natural setting. "The visit to our site allows tourists to understand traditional values of our country; tourism offers a means to make them learn the different faces of local culture. The tourism value of this patrimony shows our identity and vows that contribute to the people’s uniqueness," Haddad said.