Tourists discover city’s history with WalkBeirut
BEIRUT: With its vanished street signs and endless construction, navigating Beirut can be exceedingly difficult for first-time visitors – not to mention for Beirutis themselves on occasion.Beirut native and AUB graduate, Ronnie Chatah came up with the idea of creating a pedestrian tour of Beirut to help tourists find their way and discover the city.
WalkBeirut was originally born in June 2006 but shut down a month later due to unfortunate timing, but was opened again in April 2009.
Through trial and error, Chatah developed what is now a four-hour walking tour around the city that runs every weekend. Chatah hopes that his clients get to discover the “history of Beirut under every building, crossroad, landmark,” adding that he believes his tour to be the only “year-round walking tour in Beirut.”
Departing from AUB, Chatah guides walkers through the city as though moving through a story. The tour passes through Qantari, Wadi Abu Jamil, the Roman Baths and Downtown all the way to historical Martyrs Square, ending at the Samir Kassir Garden, one of Chatah’s mentors.
Chatah blends past and present anecdotes in a simple and objective way, explaining to tourists the often complicated concepts of sectarianism, currencies, and rent systems that comprise the peculiar mosaic of Beirut. Landmarks from Lebanon’s Civil War such as the Holiday Inn and the Beirut Trade Center are only a few of the sites that draw particular attention from the audience.
Chatah manages to render a picture of the cultures and influences that have crossed paths in Beirut – like the combination of Turkish, French and Lebanese artistic inspiration in the typical Qantari family buildings. Every corner or window of Beirut holds clues to a particular civilization, architectural movement, societal custom or even a family tradition, which is also surprising to Beirut natives.
“Beirut has become a very non-friendly pedestrian city and it isn’t easy to navigate by foot, and tourists do get frustrated and disappointed,” notes Chatah.
WalkBeirut aims to help the city’s visitors: “The tour is designed around the idea of a comfortable, manageable and enjoyable tour, where tourists are navigated and are able to appreciate the tiniest of details of this complex city and they really become aware of Beirut’s multi-layered history.”
This year though, the business has witnessed a “dramatic decrease in figures.” From his records, Chatah has noticed a 70 percent decrease in requests for tours compared to last year – an alarming figure.
“The groups do get quite full, but I never reach the point where, unlike last year and the one before, I am so overbooked, I reschedule people on further outings.”
Chatah explains this decrease in requests for tours in the context of the Arab uprisings, and specifically with events in Syria.
“Lebanon is today the safest country in the Middle East, the tourist figures have still decreased” says Chatah, but “tourists consider Lebanon part of a much bigger region.” Given the region’s current instability, the country ends up losing a large number of its visitors, Chatah believes.
Most of the tour’s clients come from abroad, mainly Europe or North America. There are also many tour participants that are of Lebanese descent who are seeking to discover their roots.
Chatah’s most recent tour was no exception, bringing a bit of every corner of the world to Beirut. Among the most enthusiastic participants were Ashley Ozburn and her mother, Kris. “It has been a wonderful eye-opening experience,” state the pair. “The storytelling is so passionate and interesting and just so full of details, you just can’t feel time going by.”
Matt Nasser from the U.S., who is of Lebanese descent and on his first visit to the country, reveals at the end of the tour how for someone like him who has come to “rediscover [his] roots for the first time, you really end up feeling invested in the city, you come to care about it and feel a connection. You’re not afraid anymore, it just feels more like home.”
Newly engaged couple Sally, from Australia, and Laurent, who is Lebanese, went on the tour ahead of their upcoming wedding. For the occasion, the couple – who first met at the Cedars and are set to marry at the same spot – have gathered friends and family from all over the world for a Beirut discovery adventure.
“We are so happy and bursting with happiness to have all our loved ones here for our special day in Beirut, and it is such a pleasure to show them the real city,” says Sally.
Source: The Daily Star
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