KFAR ZABAD, Lebanon (AFP) by Jocelyne Zablit  – A decade ago, it was a glittering vision — a scheme to lure nature lovers to the Lebanese highlands, providing income to local people, nurturing the country’s damaged environment and cementing national unity in one stroke.  Today, after a war, a political crisis and flareups of sectarian violence, Lebanon’s brave experiment in eco-tourism is battered and bloodied but defiantly soldiers on. In the eastern Bekaa region near the Syrian border, financial help from the United States and Europe helped establish a project for encouraging families to come and enjoy the wildlife, staying in local hostels and employing local guides. Ravaged by hunters, the countryside around the village of Kfar Zabad, which straddles the main migration route for African-Eurasian water fowl, was declared a protected area and now teems with birds, along with wildcats and a few river otters. "Before, this place was filled with hunters in the afternoon and all you heard was the sound of gunfire," Mayor Qassem Choker says proudly, pointing to fields near the entrance to the village. "But since the village was designated a protected area in 2004, we can hear the birds chirping again and enjoy our surroundings." The wildlife has emphatically returned. But since the 2005 assassination of ex-premier Rafiq Hariri that marked Lebanon’s new plunge into turmoil, the tourists have become an endangered species.

Foreign tourists and even expatriate Lebanese have been discouraged by fears about safety. The main visitors to the Bekaa are hardy people from Beirut and other regions, who in periods of relative calm grab the chance of a countryside break. "We keep trying to tell people it’s safe but the simple mention of the name Bekaa scares them away," said Dalia Al-Jawhary, of the Society for the Protection of Nature in Lebanon, which is heavily involved in the Kfar Zabad project. Faisal Abu-Izzedin, director of the Lebanon Mountain Trail project, a 440-kilometre (275-mile) path that cuts through 75 villages, many of them in remote areas stretching from the north to the south, says Lebanon offers unique treasures. "Nowhere else can you see this diversity," he said. "Our aim was to revive an ancient heritage which was a trail that connected villages. We hope that the trail and people who walk the trail will shine a light on the importance of keeping Lebanon beautiful." From the beaches along the Mediterranean, to mountains, forests, wildlife, Roman ruins and gorges — all within a few hours’ drive or walk — the country of 10,425 square kilometers (4,170 square miles) indeed has much to offer. "Lebanon has been classified among the 25 top countries in terms of biodiversity," said Pascal Abdallah, who heads Responsible Mobilities, an eco-conscious tour company. "We have 40 kinds of wild orchids, two or three of which are endemic to Lebanon. "We still have wolves in this tiny country, we have a type of hyena that only exists in the eastern part of the Mediterranean — and of course we have the cedars."

Eco-tourism is strongly supported by the tourism and environment ministries, despite their meagre means.

And, despite the country’s problems, local communities in rural areas, some of which have suffered heavily from the civil war and the 2006 war between Hezbollah and Israel, are taking an ever-greater interest in eco-tourism as a generator of jobs and income.

Villages near the Al-Shouf Cedar Nature Reserve for example are opening up bed-and-breakfast accommodation, offering homegrown products and traditional arts and crafts to attract tourists.

Everyone agrees, though, that for eco-tourism to take off, the country’s political situation must stabilize. Visitor numbers to Al-Shouf numbered 28,000 in 2004. Last year, they were just 14,000.

"The latest events in the country basically broke us," said Abdallah. "But in the light of the recent breakthrough deal to end the political crisis, we’re now banking on foreign tourists returning next Spring."

"We have the infrastructure. We have the trails. We just need peace," said Nizar Hani, the reserve’s scientific coordinator.