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A Lost Travel Opportunity

Lebanon today is safe to visit and worthy of study

By Elias A. Shaaya

The New York Times described this city as a “palm-fringed Middle Eastern city [that] is bingeing on new buildings and cultural projects” with a “fast-expanding night-life strip, an upstart design district, new hotels and the country’s first contemporary art museum.” This particular city was also named the destination of the year in 2009 by The New York Times as well as Lonely Planet. You might start to think I was talking of Tel Aviv, Istanbul, Antalya, or even Larnaca—the favored tourist destinations in the Middle East.

I am in fact talking about Beirut, Lebanon’s capital (not the drinking game). Currently, the U.S. Department of State “continues to urge U.S. citizens to avoid all travel to Lebanon due to current safety and security concerns.” And in compliance with this warning, Harvard College offers no funding or sponsorship to students who are interested in studying there. The U.S. travel warning needs to be revisited in light of the new developments in the country, and the College should re-evaluate this policy in order to encourage academic inquiry there.

The warning, issued in March of 2009, came before a pivotal election, which gave U.S.-backed politicians majority in Parliament and resulted in a unity government. The unity government came to resolve political tension that had governed the country since 2005, and it so far has maintained an enviable security record relative to the region with the exception of a recent incident last August. The British government has updated its travel warning since then to include only certain places in Lebanon where security might be an issue, South Lebanon and the Palestinian refugee camps. Moreover, 2009 saw almost 1.85 million tourists visiting the country, and the number is expected to increase for 2010. To keep this in perspective, note that Lebanon has less than four million inhabitants.

The U.S warning references a few examples of sporadic violent outbreaks, notably the 2006 summer war between Lebanon and Israel and the fighting that occurred between supporters of Hezbollah and those of the Future movement that resulted in the blocking of roads leading to and from the Lebanese airport. But both incidents came as a result of building political tensions and other internal factors, which have since been negated, due to the unity government and the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon. Additionally, evacuation of foreigners in these two incidences was remarkably easy. Any foreign citizen on Lebanese grounds could have easily left either by driving to Damascus, two hours away, or by sailing to Cyprus.

Travel and study in Lebanon are sure to be uniquely rewarding. Lebanon is a scenic country, it has a diverse culture, and it has unique demographic interactions that are worthy of study. Eighteen different religious groups coexist in Lebanon under the rule of a democratic parliamentary system that is heavily influenced by religion. Moreover, the National Museum contains relics over 6,000 years old showcasing life in Lebanon from the Phoenicians to the Ottomans, passing by the Romans and the Crusaders. Biodiversity in Lebanon is one of the richest in the world, with terrain ranging from coastal strips to 10,000 feet high mountains.

Lebanon is also home to some of the oldest universities in the Middle East and some of its best. Both the American University of Beirut and the Lebanese American University are registered in the state of New York, and their degrees are internationally accredited. Recently, LAU opened a medical school in collaboration with Partners Harvard Medical International. Also, Clemenceau Medical Center recently opened in Beirut in partnership with Johns Hopkins University and was ranked among the top 10 hospitals for Medical Tourism.

Lebanon has a lot to offer students in various academic fields, and the current political climate allows students to enjoy it in the midst of a peaceful economic boom. It is, hence, regrettable that the U.S. Department of State urges its citizens to refrain from visiting this Middle Eastern haven, and it is even more regrettable that Harvard refuses to offer sponsorship and funding to students interested in experiencing all that Lebanon has to offer. Students would then see for themselves why Beirut is the Paris of the Middle East.

Elias A. Shaaya ’12, a Crimson associate editorial editor, is a molecular and cellular biology concentrator in Eliot House. He is a Lebanese citizen.

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