Chronicle of the Middle East and North Africa

Lebanon’s Public Beaches: Battle for Access Continues

Despite efforts to protect Lebanon’s public beaches, the struggle continues against powerful private interests and ineffective government regulations.

Lebanon’s Public Beaches
People spend the day on the beach in the port city of Tyre in southern Lebanon on June 8, 2024, amid ongoing cross-border tensions. ANWAR AMRO / AFP

Dana Hourany

May Awala, 23, treasures her beach outings, particularly when the sweltering summer heat takes over Lebanon. Excited for her first beach day of the season, she was met with an unpleasant surprise.

“Entry to beaches has become so expensive,” Awala exclaimed with frustration.

Last year, she could enjoy her favorite beach resorts for as little as $6 to $7. However, this year, the entry fees have soared, starting at a minimum of $10 and sometimes reaching as high as $40.

“I anticipated prices would go up, but I don’t have a $50 budget every time I want to visit the beach,” Awala told Fanack.

Awala, a devoted beach goer who never misses a weekend at the beach, has made it a hobby to visit different beaches every time, from the far south of Lebanon in al-Naqoura to the north in Tripoli. However, with recent budget constraints and the rising costs of private beaches and resorts, she finds it challenging to continue her weekend escapades. Her salary as a salesperson is no longer sufficient to cover these rising costs, prompting her to seek more affordable alternatives or even reduce her beach trips.

In Lebanon, the picturesque Mediterranean coastline stretches some 220 kilometers along its western border, yet less than 20% of this expanse is accessible to the public.

The country is also still grappling with a deepening economic crisis since 2019 that has plunged the majority of its population into poverty. The soaring cost of living and a currency devaluation have made it nearly impossible for most Lebanese, paid in the rapidly depreciating Lebanese lira, to afford visits to beach resorts. These facilities predominantly charge in U.S. dollars, making them inaccessible to locals who now find such luxuries exorbitant, while the right to access beaches is fading gradually.

Adding to these woes, environmental pollution and relentless encroachments continue to degrade the public beaches that remain accessible, creating a vicious cycle. Many people in Lebanon are increasingly deprived of their rights to public spaces for leisure, further limiting their ability to enjoy the simple pleasure of a day at the beach.

A Lost Opportunity

Since 1975, during the onset of Lebanon’s civil war, beach resorts began to proliferate along the coastline, encroaching on what was once public access. This expansion has continued unabated, giving rise to hotels and private beaches of varying degrees of luxury, as commerce thrived alongside these developments.

According to the International Institute for Information, under Lebanese law, public maritime properties cannot be sold but may only be leased, and even then, only under strict conditions. For example, tenants must own adjacent properties to qualify for leasing. However, the civil war (1975-1990) provided a cover and precedent for certain individuals to take control of vast coastal lands without formal authorization.

The state’s inability to address these illegal appropriations has had lasting repercussions. Encroachments now cover approximately five million square meters, benefiting individuals and companies from all sects who have invested millions in these maritime properties. While a few pay a nominal annual fee of around 15 billion Lebanese pounds ($168,539) to the government, the vast majority contribute nothing to the public treasury.

Despite Lebanon’s rich array of tourist resorts, luxury hotels, and pools, the escalating costs of these amenities have become a significant burden, particularly for families seeking respite from the summer heat. Over the past year, the disparity in entry fees based on location, services, and classification has widened, exacerbating the financial strain on those looking to enjoy the country’s natural beauty.

Furthermore, Lebanon’s failure to tackle critical issues such as sewage intrusion and beach pollution has had a detrimental impact on its citizens, marine life, and the overall health of the coastal environment.

Last year, the National Center for Marine Sciences determined that approximately 60% of Lebanon’s beaches were safe for swimming. However, none are located in Beirut, Lebanon’s capital.

Beirut’s location along the Mediterranean Sea contrasts sharply with the reality for many of its over two million residents, who often feel disconnected from their coastal surroundings. The city’s popular sandy beach (Ramle al-Bayda), faces ongoing threats from privatization and is plagued by severe pollution from sewage runoff.

In 2017, construction began on the Eden Bay resort in Ramle al-Bayda, a project spanning over 5,000 square meters, touted on its website as “a sanctuary of luxury and refinement.” This development stirred widespread outrage among Beirut beachgoers, activists, and advocates for public spaces. The project’s proponents argue they have adhered to legal requirements and aim to bolster Lebanon’s struggling economy with significant investments and job opportunities.

However, many Beirutis from lower and middle-income backgrounds, who have frequented this beach for generations, view it as an intrusion on one of their last remaining public spaces.

For the residents of Beirut, swimming in the city’s coastal waters is uncommon. Instead, they usually drive one to two hours, either north or south, to reach cleaner and more welcoming beaches.

Still Fighting

Last year, grassroots activists and NGOs successfully thwarted multiple attempts to seize additional beachfront spaces in Lebanon. Notably, the southern al-Naqoura beach, near the Lebanese border with Occupied Palestine, faces a looming development project that has drawn vehement warnings from online activists.

Similarly, in Damour, legal action was taken against contractors allegedly operating under a Ministry of Public Works and Transport license. The intervention of activists and local organizations led to the suspension of construction activities.

Meanwhile, in Kfar Abida, north Lebanon, residents united in a significant protest to safeguard public access to Abou Ali beach. Last June, the Beach is For All campaign achieved a court decision that permanently halted construction at the beach.

Similarly, in the northern town of Amchit, environmental activists and residents protested a construction project that threatened a vital local cave, a home for migrating seals, and a popular tourist attraction. They described it as an environmental crime, citing illegal rock excavation, obstructive fencing that obscures sea views, and raised doubts about the project’s permits.

However, this year, a new project has once again given rise to tensions – again in Kfar Abida – when journalist Raghida Dergham was accused by activists of encroaching on public maritime property with her villa, sparking a protest on 9 June. Residents gathered outside Dergham’s villa to express their concerns over restricted beach access. In response, Dergham filed a complaint, alleging trespassing on her property. She claimed that protesters had removed cactus plants she had planted to manage access to the beach.

The situation escalated when the Batroun police summoned several protest participants for questioning. Mohammad Ayoub, head of the “Nahnoo” advocacy organization, confirmed that police were identifying protesters through photos and videos.

According to Ayoub, the lack of adherence to the rule of law obstructs efforts to prevent such encroachments, allowing well-connected individuals to evade accountability. He emphasizes that cities or towns that gain popularity as tourist destinations often become targets for new encroachment projects, which severely impact aquatic life, restrict beach access for locals, and detract from the natural beauty of coastlines.

Ayoub points to Jounieh in northern Lebanon as a stark example where pollution and privatization have rendered the coastline unsuitable for swimming and marred its natural beauty. He warns that Batroun, another northern city experiencing significant tourist growth, may face a similar fate.

“It’s commendable that the residents of Kfar Abida are still fighting to protect their public coast,” Ayoub told Fanack. “Politicians often respond to public outcry, particularly in light of upcoming elections, out of fear of backlash. However, in Beirut, many have either lost hope in reclaiming their coastal rights or feel disconnected due to decades of privatization and pollution.”

Disconnected from their Rights

Since the start of the Israeli war on Gaza on 7 October, fierce battles have erupted between Israel and Hezbollah, particularly affecting the southern border villages. Although coastal towns and cities have largely been spared from frequent daily bombs, the persistent conflict poses a looming threat to the entire southern region.

“At least the war has temporarily halted projects that could lead to more encroachments on southern beaches,” Ayoub noted.

However, Ayoub cautions that the ongoing conflict is devastating for tourism and the revenue it generates for southern cities like al-Naqoura, which has been under relentless Israeli bombardment.

“Tyre, one of the most popular beach destinations in the south, might still attract visitors despite the war. But with many displaced people residing in the city now frequenting the beach, it may become too crowded,” Ayoub said.

As of May 14, ongoing hostilities have displaced 93,881 individuals from south Lebanon, with females comprising 51% of those affected, and many sheltering in schools in Tyre.

Hesham Younes, founder of the environmental group Green Southerners, highlighted that safety concerns have stalled initiatives to clean up beaches and conduct on-the-ground ecological work in the south.

Last month, they released a red fox after treatment in hazardous conditions in the Bint Jbeil area, a border village that has been under heavy bombardment since October 7.

“We have been unable to reach sites we identified as active sites for our local wildlife’s colonies due to the extensive shelling of white phosphorus by the Israeli occupation troops,” Younes told Fanack.

The Southern Front

The Green Southerners have been in contact with the Ministry of Environment, the Ministry of Agriculture, and the Ministry of Public Works and Transportation as needed to report incidents of encroachment or environmental hazards. However, Younes expressed frustration with the Ministry of Public Works and Transportation for its lack of responsiveness to the group’s inquiries regarding the encroachment caused by last year’s private project on the al-Naqoura coastline, where an important conservation site for sea turtles, Orange House, exists.

The group demanded that the project be halted and pushed back because it intruded on public space, blocked off the public beach, and harmed the beach’s ecosystem. The project received a license from the ministry without completing the required Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) report or obtaining approval from the Ministry of Environment.

“We expected better performance and a different response from the ministry on this matter,” he said.

Younes recognizes that while there is relatively good access to public beaches in south Lebanon, it does not necessarily reflect the extent of expanding encroachments on the southern coastline. He emphasizes that the impact of the war goes beyond just tourism and has severe and long-term effects on agriculture. It also affects local fishermen who face safety concerns, limiting their ability to work or venture far into the sea.

Despite the challenges, Younes claims that Green Southerners will continue to monitor potential encroachments even during the war and will alert the relevant ministries as necessary.

In fact, they have already done so near the towns of Yater and Abbasiyye where they have noticed ongoing construction projects.

“This should ultimately be the state’s responsibility, but citizens must also remain vigilant and hold the state accountable whenever possible,” he said.

Ayoub adds that the constant pressures on the Lebanese people, including the ongoing economic crisis and the war, underscore the need for public respite spaces, such as beaches.

“Public spaces are essential for people to connect, socialize, and take a break. As these spaces shrink, people are forced into further isolation. One can only imagine the consequences on an already exhausted population,” Ayoub remarked.

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