Karim Talbi, AFP
Last updated: 24 July, 2012

In Lebanon, luxury summer resort has turned into unlikely refuge spot for Syrians

With wealthy Gulf tourists shunning Lebanon this summer, Hani Abdel Malek did not expect that hundreds of Syrians fleeing violence in their homeland would spare his luxury hotel a bad season.

All 82 of the Al-Safat hotel’s suites were empty just a week ago, but in just a single day last week, they were all filled up.

“Syrian families started to arrive,” said Abdel Malek. “All of them are from Damascus. I didn’t ask any questions. For me, they are not refugees. They are clients.”

Bhamdoun is a summer resort 30 kilometres (20 miles) east of Beirut, which is usually popular with Saudi, Kuwaiti, Qatari and Emirati tourists in search of relaxation and the cool mountain air.

But conflict in neighbouring Syria, rumours of kidnappings in Lebanon, and travel warnings by various Gulf states against visiting the small Mediterranean country have all ruined the summer season for hotel owners here.

“The Syrians have saved the day, in spite of themselves,” a Bhamdoun hotel owner told AFP.

At least 30,000 have crossed over into Lebanon since fierce clashes broke out in Damascus nine days ago.

And all along the road connecting Beirut to Bhamdoun, hotel occupancy rates have shot up, according to Pierre Achkar, head of the Hotel Owners Association in Lebanon.

At the gates of hotels and and rented houses where scores of refugees have found a temporary home, sedans and four-wheel drive vehicles with Syrian number plates are parked.

The luxury contrasts with the visible signs of displacement. Clothes hang off lines, children play cards, and men meet in the lobby to share cigarettes and discuss their fate.

Businessman Imad Moussawi, 37, fled on Friday the Damascus district of Midan, scene of fierce violence last week. Shaken by the fighting, he left the capital in a convoy of eight cars, with some 50 people, as regime forces retook the district from rebel hands.

“We’ll stay here as long as we have to,” said Moussawi. “I prefer (President) Bashar al-Assad to the rebels, they are all Islamists.”

His brother-in-law, a well-built rugby player, looks up and says: “He’s lying. The army is killing 10-year-old children.”

As they fled, the Syrians took little with them — a few clothes for the children and the family jewellery.

Families arriving in the mountain resorts belong to the capital’s middle and upper classes, and they are divided over whether to support the revolt or stay neutral.

Some fear for their future if they regime falls, worrying they may be held accountable for the wealth they have accumulated.

They know the conflict might drag on, and that they need to spend as little as possible as they prepare to live off their savings.

“Our suites are usually priced at $440. but we are only charging them $100,” said the Al-Safat manager. “We don’t make a profit, but at least we break even, and we help the Syrians.”

In the hillside village of Baalchemey, with a panoramic view over the Mediterranean, Hisham Abu Hamdan was just as suprised as the other hotel owners by the inflow of clients.

The retired army officer-turned-landlord has opened his luxury flats for rent to multiple families to share.

“I lowered the price per night from $120 to $45, or even less,” said Abu Hamdan, adding he saw it as a way to help the Syrians out.

After breaking their daytime Ramadan fast, a group of men gathered at the entrance of the house. They do not know each other, but they share a similar fate.

“I wasn’t opposed to Assad at first,” said Firas, who owns a textile business in Damascus. “But my uncle was killed in Hama three months ago, and I saw with my own eyes how an army tank opened fire on a car in Damascus. There was a family with children in that car.”

Others start to share their stories as the sun sets, tinting the sky red.

“How do we describe soldiers who kill doctors?” said one. “That way they kill the wounded too.”

Mohammed, another refugee, has abandoned his booming import-export business, in search of a new home. “Egypt, or perhaps Morocco,” he says.

“Last night, as I was looking at the sea, I asked myself: should I support the army or the rebels, so that my children grow up in peace?” he said, smiling sadly. “But I couldn’t find the answer.”