Cleaning Beirut’s beaches

Marketplace Staff Aug 24, 2006

KAI RYSSDAL: France has had a change of heart. French president Jacques Chirac said in a speech tonight he’ll send 2,000 soldiers to Lebanon as part of a United Nations force. His initial offer was just 400. Diplomats are still trying to figure out what the rules of engagement will be. But the Lebanese aren’t waiting around. They’re working to right their economy. which depends largely on tourism. They’re rebuilding busted bridges and hotels. And they’re cleaning up some serious environmental damage. Ben Gilbert has the story.

BEN GILBERT: If you wanted to get a whiff of what lasting environmental damage smells and looks like in Lebanon, it would probably pay to start here.

Ribbons of murky black oil stretch horizontally across this sandy beach that had once been one of the cleanest in Lebanon. A place where women once walked in bikinis, sipping cocktails, and children played in the surf. It’s now deserted.

On the third day of the war in Lebanon, Israeli jets attacked a fuel storage tank near this beach, sending around 3 million gallons of oil into the Mediterranean sea. For nearly a month, the oil has clung to the coast.

Clean up is just now starting, but between 70 and 80 percent of Lebanon’s tourism occurs during the summer, and it’s lost.

JOSEPH SARKIS:“It would have been the best year since the civil war in Lebanon. And even better than the year 1974, which was the year before the war.”

That’s Lebanon’s Tourism Minister Joseph Sarkis. He says Lebanon was on its way to having a record 1.6 million visitors. They were expected to bring in around $2.5 billion, or about 10 percent of the country’s gross domestic product. That money would have come to restaurants, tour guides and hotel owners, like 27-year-old Shereef Samaha. Samaha runs the Mayflower Hotel in Beirut, and says this was supposed to be what he called “the magnificent summer.”

SHEREEF SAMAHA:“You wouldn’t believe where we were on the 11th of July. You wouldn’t find a place in any of the hotels. We expected something so huge that it would equal all previous years combined.”

A few years ago, the Mayflower was handed to Samaha by his father, who had kept the hotel running even during the country’s 15-year civil war. The son was pumped and ready to expand, but his father cautioned him against making too many expensive renovations.

SAMAHA:“You know, he didn’t say, ‘I told you so.’ But, you know, he kind of said, ‘You see, that’s the sad story of Lebanon.’ There’s always going to be ups and downs. There’ll never be only ups.”

Now, instead of being packed with tourists, Samaha’s hotel is now full of journalists and aid workers.

Workers at the Oceana Resort are trying to spray off thick layers of spongy green algae from the bottom of the resort’s pools. Manager Faadi Akel says the resort is now getting ready to open after more than a month of closure, but it won’t be the same.

FAADI AKEL:“We’re gonna open two out of seven restaurants and two out of three pools. Half of the resort will be closed for maintenance purposes. Obviously, you had a lot of damages.”

Akel says 80 percent of the resort’s clients have left the country. He’s confident they can resurrect the pools, but he shakes his head when he looks at the beach.

AKEL:“We are bringing a Caterpillar tomorrow morning to remove all the sand, trying to remove as much as we can. Because visually it’s nicer. But, psychologically, I don’t know how much people are going to use the beach again, since there is this fear that the sea is polluted.”

Equipment and supplies are arriving from the United Nations and neighboring Mediterranean countries to help start cleaning the oil spill. The work has begun with a $64 million fund.

But even if the beach is cleaned, the pools clear and the restaurants opened up, there are other elements to scare off tourists. The menacing sound of Israeli jets can be heard over the ocean’s waves, reminding Lebanese that a cease-fire is in effect, but it’s very fragile.

In Beirut, I’m Ben Gilbert for Marketplace.

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