Developers move ahead with Lebanon’s $1bn Sannine Zenith project
Company CEO expects crews to begin work this year on the first phase of what will be the country’s largest tourism development

By Habib Battah , Daily Star staff

BEIRUT: Plans to build a billion dollar ski resort on Lebanon’s Sannine mountain range have not been affected by the unraveling of Lebanon’s delicate political fabric over recent months, with developers telling The Daily Star that excavation work on the mammoth project could begin as earlier as this summer.

Sannine Zenith mountain resort, expected to be the largest tourism project the country has ever seen, will have a final master plan by the end of May, according to company CEO Tony Abi Rached. Notwithstanding any future political earthquakes, this means crews will get to work on the 50 million square meter phase one of the project in a matter of weeks or months.

“If you leave it to me, I want to lay the cornerstone this summer,” Abi Rached said in an interview, warning however that no final date would be set until after legislative elections, expected to take place between late May and early June.

“I think it will be positive,” he added, in a reference to the crucial poll, the first to be held free from Syrian dominance in the country in over three decades.

“I am very optimistic about this country,” Abi Rached said. “This project is going to boost the economy,” he explained, claiming Sannine Zenith would employ up to 15,000 people at its peak stage of development during the next 7 to 10 years.

Sannine Zenith has hired Canada-based Ecosign Mountain Developers, a firm that is working on slopes for the 2010 Olympic games in Whistler, to execute the master plan which originally encompassed some 96 million square meters, or approximately 1 percent of Lebanon’s total area.

But Abi Rached has since split the project into three phases, with 72 million square meters now being the target of construction over the next 10 to 15 years. Sannine Zenith should be able to accommodate 22,000 skiers by the end of phase two, far beyond the capacity of Lebanon’s most popular ski resort, Faraya Mzar, with a capacity of 5,000 skiers.

Abi Rached envisions the creation of four resort villages connected by cable car gondolas at the end of phase one. But he says skiers will begin hitting Zenith’s slopes four years from the start of construction.

The developers behind Sannine Zenith faced a series of controversies last year when attempting to register the massive swath of land with local authorities, amid allegations that the project was owned by Saudi investors in contravention of local property laws.

But the deed was finally approved by Zahle authorities last year after the Sannine Zenith’s chairman reportedly bought out a Saudi investor for 99 percent of the venture. Abi Rached said his investors were optimistic about the Syrian withdrawal from the country, saying none have backed out of the project over the last two months of political upheaval.