20 Feb 2018
Beirut, Lebanon
Sustainable Tourism

Every country has its unique biodiversity and history, but not every country has an established trail running straight through the heart of it. That is the case with the 470-kilometer Lebanon Mountain Trail (LMT), which passes through more than 75 towns and villages, three protected nature reserves, two biosphere reserves, and one UNESCO world heritage site. Lebanon’s Mediterranean climate means the landscape is rich with flora and fauna, including the emblematic cedar tree, pictured on the country’s flag.

From the U.S. to Lebanon:

Sometimes it takes one great trail to inspire another. Joseph Karam had been walking sections of the 3,500-kilometer-long Appalachian Trail since moving to the United States in 1985.

Back in his home country of Lebanon, Karam noticed a growing demand for long-distance hiking. “People started to return to Lebanon after the war ended, and brought with them novel, ecotourism-inspired approaches to enjoying the mountains,” Karam says. “It dawned on me one day that this interest was the tip of something larger, and that it could all be connected via a long-distance hiking trail.”

In the early 2000’s, Karam and his company, ECODIT, had the opportunity to make this idea a reality. USAID issued a request for proposals to expand economic opportunities in rural Lebanon, and a trail that traced the Mount Lebanon range fit the bill. In 2007, just 27 months after the project began, the Lebanon Mountain Trail (LMT) opened to hikers. The full length of the trail runs from Andqet Akkar in the north of Lebanon to Marjaayoun in the south.

Since being created, the trail has received international recognition, and was a founding member of the World Trail Network.

Protectors of the Lebanon Mountain Trail:

With the opening of LMT came the need for a group to care for it. This is where the Lebanon Mountain Trail Association comes into the picture. At the center of the mountainous beauty and biodiversity, there is a challenge: preservation.

“A lot is happening on a daily basis that destroys our natural landscape and rural cultural heritage, and there is a total lack of urban planning,” explains Maya Karkour, President of the LMT Association. She describes illegal quarries eating away at the mountains, new roads zigzagging over their peaks, excessive littering, illegal hunting, burning of trash in open dumps, and more. Combined with fires that rage through forests nearly every summer, the association is left with no shortage of challenges. “This is why our mission of protection and conservation is something we’re fighting for,” she says.

The LMT Association is currently made up of a volunteer board of eight, and eight staff members, including an Executive Director, a Trail Manager, a Community Development Manager, and two part-timers working on environmental education.

The major mission of the association is protecting the mountains over which the trail runs. “Currently, around 20% of the trail is officially protected, in places where it transects nature reserves, protected areas, and heritage sites,” expands Martine Btaich, the LMT Association’s Executive Director. The association is currently advocating for a presidential decree to officially recognize LMT as a nationally-protected trail.  

Rural trail, rural education:

Community engagement and education is one of the LMT Association’s major focuses, and the group is highly invested in the communities that have the trail at their doorstep. An in-depth consultation process is currently underway involving local municipalities, local guides, guesthouse owners, local schools, and various stakeholders to better understand their perceptions of the trail.    

Since LMT was created by joining many informal trails, it would be possible for rural residents to not know the route existed. “We raise their awareness so they know this trail exists, and that it’s important to protect for their own sake. They can directly benefit from it by promoting responsible tourism,” says Karkour.

The association works with every community along the trail, creating rural jobs through guest house ownership and mountain guiding opportunities. There is at least one local guide along each of the LMT’s 27 sections. Last year, the association received funding to run a full-year certification and training program that heightened the knowledge of local guides in topics such as guiding tourists, first aid, geology, biodiversity, history, and archaeology.

The LMT Association’s Trail to Every Classroom program brings the trail’s teachings to one of the most important demographics: kids. Six to 10 village public schools along the trail are selected each year, and students are brought onto LMT for short hikes, discussions, and games, all to learn about the environmental value of mountain trails.

The impact is already perceptible. Last year, the program worked with a school in Tannourine, a mountain village close to the trail. After the students were taught about composting, they asked the municipality to set up a composting scheme for the whole village, to benefit local farmers. A recycling committee is now being created, with the kids in charge of educating their parents and neighbors about the hows and whys of composting.

In February 2018, the association also launched Mountain Explorers, an online tool where students can virtually learn about the natural resources, biodiversity, culture, and landscape of mountain regions worldwide.

In tandem with raising awareness for the environment, the association’s school programs aspire to show youth that there is a livelihood to be made in rural ecotourism. “We want to make them understand there is real value in staying in their community, and that there is worldwide acknowledgement of sustainable tourism and preserving these authentic destinations,” Karkour says.

Into the wild:

Then, of course, there is the hike itself. Hikers from across Lebanon and around the world trek LMT, and it is estimated that between 25,000 and 30,000 people visit each year. Demand for the thru-walk that happens in the spring and fall has boomed from dozens in 2009 to an impressive 230 hikers in April 2017.

“Most people do it because they love hiking and nature,” says Karkour. “Our highlight is a mix of discovering rural areas and local food. People don’t just come back for the hiking — they’re charmed.”

Mark Aoun agrees. Aoun is an avid hiker and the founder of Vamos Todos, an ecotourism NGO and operator in Lebanon. “Experiencing Lebanon by foot is one excellent initiative that has put Lebanon on the trekking map of the world,” he says of LMT. “A big part of our weekly trails pass through LMT, accompanied by certified guides from the association. We make sure to join forces to keep Lebanon high ranking on the ecotourism scale!”

In just a few weeks, the next set of hikers depart on the bi-annual thru-walk, trekking the full length of the trail over 30 days. Demand has been so high this year that the association will have to redirect people on the waiting list to local tour operators.

The theme and slogan of this year’s thru-walk is “Hike it, Protect It” and the association promotes a zero waste hike, encouraging trekkers to bring their own refillable containers and water bottles, and recycling as much as possible.

While Karkour says it is impossible to pick a favorite part of the trail, she does have her preferred moments: “I love the parts where you look 360 degrees and there is no indication that human beings have settled or done anything to the landscape,” she says. “There are no houses, no concrete, it’s only nature. It’s these places that I find so inspiring, and they make me fight for the protection of our mountains and nature even harder.”

With the rest of the LMT Association feeling the same reverence for the trail, the path is in good hands.


Find out more through the association’s website, Facebook, and Instagram.

Hilary is a journalist, photographer, and maker of things. She loves working with entrepreneurs to share their stories and has done so around the world.Hilary Duff
Hike the length of Lebanon with the country’s longest mountain trail | The Switchers
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