Lebanon

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Introduction to Lebanon

Lebanon packs a lot into its modest borders: ancient cities, Roman ruins, luxurious ski resorts, bucolic charm and Islamic architecture are just the start. Lebanon is culturally rich too, with a religious and social diversity that has sometimes led it to trouble.

Lebanon fell off the tourist map when it disintegrated into civil war in 1975. It is now slowly recovering its infrastructure. If you're interested in the history of the region and want to see how Lebanon is striving to rebuild itself (Beirut's Downtown area, in particular, is undergoing major redevelopment), now is a good time to visit.

Many foreign visitors now finding their way to Lebanon are package tourists. Independent travellers are not as common, but are growing in numbers, and all travellers are made to feel welcome. The Lebanese are genuinely hospitable towards strangers and are not shy of inviting travellers into their homes.

Caution

The border with Israel (down towards the extreme south and southeast of Lebanon), remains a highly volatile area as occassional armed exchanges take place between Hezbollah, a radical Shia militia, and the Israeli army. Though tourists are not targeted, travellers are nonetheless advised to stay well away from border areas. Permission from the army is required to visit areas such as Beaufort Castle and Al-Khiam Museum. The northern Beka'a valley should be avoided.

Beirut is currently undergoing a period of turmoil, following the assassination of several high profile personalities linked to the withdrawal of Syrian troops after a 29 year occupation of the country. The political situation in Beirut is tense and travellers should stay informed of consular advice regarding ongoing happenings in the city. Travellers should also avoid Palestinian camps.

During their 20-year-plus occupation, the Israelis, their South Lebanon Army (SLA) allies and the various Lebanese resistance organisations littered the occupied zone with land mines (about 13,000 of them) and other unexploded ordnance. The landmark warning sign is a rusty-red upside-down triangle with 'Al-Ghram' written in Arabic script. Do not assume all landmines have been marked, let alone found; demining is ongoing in the region. Hikers should consult locals on the safety of off-road areas and avoid straying from well-used roads.

Despite these warnings most holiday areas are secure and the locals carry on as normal. The rule of thumb is always to exercise caution and to do your research before heading away from the well-touristed tracks.

Full country name: Republic of Lebanon

Area: 10,452 sq km

Population: 4.4 million

Capital City: Beirut (pop: 1.5 million)

People: Arabs, Palestinians, Kurds, Armenians

Language: Arabic, French, English, Armenian

Religion: 60% Muslim, 40% Christian

Government: republic

Head of State: President Emil Lahoud

Head of Government: Prime Minister Najib Mikati

GDP: US$15.8 billion

GDP per capita: US$4,078

Annual Growth: 3%

Inflation: 3.5%

Major Industries: Agriculture, banking, construction, tourism

Major Trading Partners: Saudi Arabia, EU, UAE, US

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Traveler Facts

Visas: All nationalities need a visa to enter Lebanon. Australian, Canadian, most EU, New Zealand and US passport holders can obtain a visa on arrival. Entry will be refused if you are holding a used or unused, expired or valid visa for Israel, or have any Israeli stamp endorsed on your passport.

Time Zone: GMT/UTC +2

Dialling Code: 961

Electricity: 230V ,50Hz

Weights & measures: Metric



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Events

Most holidays are religious, and with so many different sects in Lebanon there are plenty of excuses to celebrate. The principal Islamic holidays are tied to the lunar Hejira calendar which is about 11 days shorter than the Western calendar, meaning that Islamic holidays fall 11 days earlier each year. Major events include Ras as-Sana (New Year's Day), Ashoura, a day of public mourning observed by Shiite Muslims which commemorates the assassination of the grandson of Mohammed, Imam Hussein ibn Ali, and Ramadan, a month of dawn-to-dusk fasting. The end of Ramadan is marked with Eid al-Fitr, the Festival of Breaking the Fast.

The Feast of Mar Maroun celebrates the patron saint of the Maronites on 9 February, and Christian Easter celebrations take place twice, once according to the Western calendar, and again according to the Eastern Christian churches. Secular holidays include Independence Day (22 November) and Qana Day (18 April), an official day of mourning for the massacre at Qana in 1996 in which 107 Lebanese civilians were killed by Israeli shells at a UN camp. More happily, there's a world-renowned four-day arts festival in Baalbek, in the Bekaa Valley, each July.

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Best time to Visit

For sun worshippers, the time to come to Lebanon is the summer season from June to mid-September. The weather is hot and dry, though very humid on the coast. To many people's surprise, Lebanon is becoming increasingly popular as a winter sports destination. It has a number of ski resorts and the ski season runs from early December to April. During May, the weather on the coast is warm enough for swimming and the country is carpeted with flowers. If your luck is running, you can catch the end of the ski season, sunbathe on the beach and get fresh flowers in your room, all on the same day! Autumn is also scenic: by October the most oppressive heat is over and it's a pleasant time to visit.



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Currency / Costs / Approx. Spending

Currency: Lebanese Pound or Lira

Meals

Budget: LL3000-5000

Mid-range: LL5000-10,000

High: LL10,000-15,000

Deluxe: LL15,000

Lodging

Budget: US$10-20

Mid-range: US$20-80

High: US$80-150

Deluxe: US$150+

Lebanon is quite expensive by Mediterranean and Middle East standards, and the main expense is accommodation. It is possible, though, with careful spending, to live on US$25 to US$30 per day by nosing out cheap rooms and eating street-stall food. A more comfortable travelling budget, taking into account the high cost of hotels, is around US$70 to US$80 a day. Room rates are cheaper outside Beirut, but the cost of meals is pretty standardised throughout Lebanon: if you can live on felafel and shwarma, food need only set you back a few dollars a day. Public transport, including long-distance buses, will rarely cost more than US$5.

Most banks will only change US dollars and UK pounds in cash or travellers cheques, while moneychangers, found throughout Lebanon, will deal in almost any convertible currency. They also offer better rates than the banks. Check the rates in a newspaper and shop around for the best deal. International credit cards are accepted in larger businesses and, increasingly, in restaurants and shops.

Tipping is usually expected as a reward for services. Because of the devaluation of the Lebanese currency, salaries and wages are much lower than they used to be, so tips are an essential means of supplementing incomes. Most restaurants and nightspots include a 16% service charge in the bill, but it is customary to leave an extra tip of 10% of the total. With the exception of a few set prices, everything can be bargained down in Lebanon, from taxi fares to hotel charges. Most hotels will give you a discount if you stay for more than three days.

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Attractions

Beirut

Once known as the Paris of the Middle East, Beirut really took a beating during the long civil war in Lebanon. The city underwent a major transformation in the years following the cessation of hostilities, particularly in the downtown area and it's now a city of vibrancy and charm.

Beirut is a city of contrasts: beautiful architecture exists alongside concrete eyesores; traditional houses set in jasmine-scented gardens are dwarfed by modern buildings; winding old alleys turn off from wide avenues; and swanky new cars vie for right of way with vendor carts.

Baalbek

Baalbek, 86km (53mi) northeast of Beirut, was originally named after the Phoenician god Baal. The town was renamed Heliopolis by the Greeks and still later it was made a centre of Jupiter worship by the Romans. During its Roman era, Baalbek was the premier city in Roman Syria.

In more recent times, the anti-Western Islamic fundamentalist Hezbollah made its headquarters here, and the town has only reopened to tourists in recent years. The modern town is very small, but its Roman ruins are probably the best archaeological site in the country.

Bcharré

The trip to Bcharré and the Cedars, inland from Tripoli, passes through some of the most beautiful scenery in Lebanon. The road winds along mountainous slopes, gaining altitude and winding precipitously above spectacular gorges. Spiritual and literary types will want to check out the Gibran Museum.

Khalil Gibran, the famous author,artist and poet, was born here and is buried in an old monastery overlooking the town. The museum has a large collection of his artworks, as well as many of his manuscripts. You can visit his coffin and see some personal belongings in the monastery's former chapel.

Byblos

The ancient city of Byblos, 40km (25mi) from Beirut, is one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world. Byblos was populated during the Neolithic period 7000 years ago. In the third millenium BC it became the most important trading port in the area and sent cedar wood and oil to Egypt.

The major Phoenician centre until the 10th century BC, Byblos developed an alphabetic phonetic script that was the precursor of modern alphabets. Invaded by Persians, Alexander the Great, Romans, Byzantines and Arabs, Byblos fell into obscurity after it was taken then abandoned by the Crusaders.

Tripoli

Tripoli, 85km (53mi) north of Beirut, is Lebanon's second-largest city and the main port and trading centre for northern Lebanon. Although more modern than the rest of Lebanon, Tripoli's attractions are its medieval history and Mamluk architecture.

Tripoli survived the civil war better than most Lebanese cities and retains an air of Arab charm, with narrow alleys, souqs, a slow pace and friendly people. It's also the candy capital of Lebanon and any trip to the city wouldn't be right without a visit to one of its lusciously sticky sweet shops.

Tyre

Ancient Tyre, on the coast in the south of Lebanon, was founded by the Phoenicians in the third millennium BC. It originally consisted of a mainland settlement and an island city, but under Hiram in the 9th century BC the island was connected to the mainland by a narrow causeway.

When Alexander's troops arrived in the 4th century, they severed the old causeway and built a 'mole' or breakwater. The mole was much larger than the old causeway and it is this which caused the island to become a peninsula. In Phoenician times Tyre was famous for its purple dye and glass industries.

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Sources: CIA FactBook, World FactBooks and numerous Travel and Destinations Guides.

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