BEIRUT: Lebanese like Hamza al-Sees should have no problem finding a beach to while away the summer in a country stretching along the Mediterranean.
But as private developers have gobbled up seafront land and families complain of ever-more polluted waters, many Lebanese say it is cheaper and cleaner to fly abroad than go to the beach at home.
“I went to Cyprus for five days, stayed in a luxury hotel and enjoyed the beauty of the Cypriot coast,” said Sees, who hails from Lebanon’s southern beachfront city of Sidon.
“For the ticket, the hotel and all the expenses — including transport, food, drink, clubs and activities—I paid $1,000,” the 23-year-old shopkeeper said.
“I even bought gifts and souvenirs for my family,” he said, adding it was the second year in a row that he and friends had made the trip.
In Lebanon, by contrast, expenses start piling up long before beachgoers even dip into the water.
“The costs start with the valet parking at these beach spots,” Sees said.
“Then you have the entrance fee, which won’t be less than $30, and then the cost of just juice, water and a normal meal would be at least $40.”
For Lara Aoun, 34, a five-day getaway to Cyprus to escape Lebanon’s polluted seafronts was well-worth $500.
“The sea in Lebanon and Cyprus is the same, but there the beaches are clean and free,” Aoun said.
“Here we either swim alongside bottles and cans at the free beaches, or pay a fortune at private resorts,” she said, describing the options along Lebanon’s 220-kilometre (130-mile) coastline.
Open dumping of solid trash is common in Lebanon, which has been rocked by a waste management crisis since the summer of 2015.
The “overwhelming presence” of factories along Lebanon’s coast has also resulted in severe water pollution, including with toxic materials, according to a 2012 report from Lebanon’s University of Balamand.
And more than 150 kilometers of coastline was contaminated in 2006 by an oil spill resulting from the Israeli bombardment of a major power plant south of Beirut, the report added.
The increasing number of Lebanese looking for beaches abroad has prompted travel agencies to organize charter flights to attract more clients with cheaper packages.
Hassan Dahir, owner of the Five Stars travel agency, said Turkey’s seaside resorts of Marmaris, Bodrum, Antalya and Alanya have become top destinations for Lebanese, followed by Cyprus and Egypt’s Sharm al-Sheikh.
“You can go to Marmaris in Turkey for five days, stay at a mid-range hotel, and spend $425, including food and drink,” he said.
Dahir said an average of 10 charter flights a week—each carrying 150 to 190 passengers—were taking off to various beach destinations abroad between June and September.
‘No real public beaches’
Much of the problem stems from a dearth of clean and free public beaches or swimming pools at home.
“Public beaches in the usual sense of the term don’t exist in Lebanon,” said Mohammad Ayub, executive director of the civil society NGO Nahnoo.
Lebanon “is one of the rare countries that allows construction on its public coastal land,” he added.
But many of the resorts that now restrict access to Lebanon’s coast are unlicensed, built on land that was obtained during the country’s 1975-1990 civil war.
A 2012 report by the Ministry of Transportation said around five square kilometres of the coastline was now built up, most of it illegally.
“All the state agencies and politicians are offenders… and the solution is to cancel the law that allows investment on the coast,” Ayub said.
Activists have protested against developers building on the last remaining public beaches, including earlier this month in the seaside village of Kfarabida.
Hundreds gathered on its rocky shore in northern Lebanon, calling on the government to “save our beaches”.
“The government must turn this place into a natural reserve,” said blogger and activist Nadine Mazloum.
For those who can’t afford to travel overseas, Lebanon’s few public beaches are the only option.
This year, the public beaches in Tyre and Naqura in southern Lebanon have overflowed with visitors, despite a lack of facilities.
And sun worshippers have also flocked to Anfeh, in the north, where restaurants sit on the shoreline, offering visitors sea access in return for their custom.
“We’ve gotten to know Anfeh to avoid the pollution and high prices,” said Rose Matteh, sitting with her family at one of the restaurants, which are painted blue and white to resemble Greece’s Santorini.
“Elsewhere, we end up paying $80 to enter and another $80 for food. At least here we can eat, drink and enjoy the sea for only $80.” AFP