In south Lebanon, tourism develops despite threat of war

South Lebanon has bore the brunt of Israeli war and occupation. (Micheal Moore/MaanImages)

KHIAM, Lebanon (IPS) - The contours of a modern medieval castle stretch along the Wazzani River delineating Lebanon’s border with Israel. A few meters away from the United Nations-mandated Blue Line, on Lebanon’s first line of fire with Israel, a tourism project at an estimated cost of 20 million dollars is slowly taking shape.

Lebanon has been at war with its southern neighbor often since the creation of Israel in 1948. South Lebanon bore the brunt of the longtime enmity and fell under Israel occupancy for over 22 years from 1978-2000. Over the years, an unstable peace has reigned over the region, but broken every now and then because south Lebanon is home to Hizballah, Lebanon’s local resistance movement against Israel.

The Israelis established one of their main detention and interrogation centers in the neighboring Khiam village. “The area is of strategic importance due to its proximity to the borders,” General Wehbe Katish, former Lebanese general tells IPS. “The Wazzani river, which is a confluent of the Jordan river, is also another point of contention between the two countries.”

A couple of investors have nevertheless decided to promote the area as a tourist destination. Khalil Abdallah and his sister Zahra are building restaurants and a hotel on their 50,000 square meter family estate, a few meters from the barbed wire fence that separates the two countries.

“It was always my father’s dream to build a tourism project on our lands,” says Zahra. Her brother Khalil made his fortune in the construction sector in Cote d’Ivoire.

The resort will be an eco-lodge, built around the riverbed. It would include a restaurant Les Pieds dans l’Eau (Feet in the Water), where visitors can literally dip their feet sitting by the river, as well as luxury chalets and villas, a hotel and three swimming pools.

Two structures shaped in the form of a mosque and a church have are also planned. “We have decided to include the symbols of both religions in our new project to show the region’s openness; we will be building a mosque and church in a later phase,” says Zahra.

In the preliminary phase, the project will include 18 chalets, rising to 60 on completion. “People in the south do not have access to large tourism projects like in other Lebanese regions, where they can hold weddings, go out for dinner or take a few relaxing days off. The south is also largely underdeveloped in terms of tourism infrastructure. Our project will certainly be meeting a growing need,” says Zahra.

An additional hotel is in the plans, to include a conference centre and rotating restaurant, surrounded by 15 villas. Two pools, a playground, a tennis court and an equestrian centre are also under construction.

“The land’s value alone is estimated at about 7.5 million dollars, to which will be added the cost of the project, valued at about 20 million dollars on completion. We have invested about 3.5 million dollars up until now,” says Zahra.

Pointing towards the southern border, the young woman explains she is not worried about a renewed war with Israel. “The 2006 conflict showed that a new balance of power was established here in the south,” she says. “This project is part of our act of defiance, and promoting development projects in the south is a peaceful way of fighting Israel.”

But she does admit that having Israel’s border so close to her land has raised problems. From time to time, soldiers from the Israeli army can be seen patrolling on the other side of the river.

“We have had problems with Israeli soldiers, who prohibit our workers from crossing to the other side of the river, which is also our property,” says Zahra.

According to Mohamad Rida Abdallah, deputy mayor in Khiam, the project will have a positive impact on the local economy because it will employ people from nearby villages. The deputy mayor estimates unemployment levels in the area at about twenty percent. Zahra Abdallah says the Wazzani complex will employ around a hundred people in the initial phases of the launch.

Zahra and Khalil are not the only ones taking a chance by investing in the south. At Khiam, a few kilometres away from the Wazzani River, another member of the Abdallah family is building a four-star hotel.

“We can’t live in fear of another war with Israel; we need to progress,” says Mohamad Ali Abdallah, who is doing the three million dollar project.

In the face of such optimism, it is hard to miss the Israeli tanks in plain sight, motionless on the ground as if laying in wait. “If there is peace with Israel, the area is perfectly suited for any tourist project. But in a war, it will be a direct zone of confrontation,” warns Gen. Katish.

All rights reserved, IPS — Inter Press Service (2010). Total or partial publication, retransmission or sale forbidden.