Long-renowned for its history and its ancient Roman citadel, the Lebanese city of Baalbek has been shunned by tourists in recent years, put off by the area's reputation for crime and its perceived association with Hizbullah.
This perception does not reflect the present reality, according to Baalbek native Hussein Yaghi, who founded an organisation called Safe Side to restore Baalbek's reputation and facilitate the return of tourists.
Yaghi, who also serves as the association’s president, told Al-Mashareq he founded Safe Side to organise awareness-raising and tourism activities, with the aim of restoring the city’s image and asserting its political neutrality.
This was born of a desire to present a more positive image of Baalbek -- the former Heliopolis, or 'City of the Sun' -- and its people, he said.
The Phoenician city of Baalbek dates back to the Greco-Roman period and its complex of ancient temples is listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Yaghi began to develop the Safe Side concept in 2013.
The city of Baalbek has been associated with Hizbullah, he said, but "this is wrong, because it is not true of all of us. It has planted fear in all Lebanese, as well as Arab and foreign tourists and kept them from visiting this historic city".
Safe Side is addressing this misperception on a number of fronts, he said, by promoting Baalbek as a tourist destination and by organising tours to bring in visitors from other parts of the country.
The association also has begun organising tours for Gulf nationals, hosting in its first event on April 9th more than 70 cyclists from Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, the UAE, Qatar, Oman, Jordan and Iraq, Yaghi said.
"They had a wonderful day," he said. "They got acquainted with the city and left promising to return with their families."
What we do "breaks the barrier of fear and encourages people to come to Baalbek", he said. "The locals are happy with what we are doing and support our activities, because we are changing the city’s stereotype."
Promoting Baalbek tourism
Safe Side cultural officer Kinda Abdul Sater told Al-Mashareq the assosiation's tours for Lebanese citizens "are achieving their objective, as many of them are frequenting the city now that they have broken free of their fear".
"We opened the doors of Baalbek to them, and now they visit it periodically and promote it on social media, which means that we have achieved our goal," she said.
University student and Baalbek native Hassan al-Rifai told Al-Mashareq the association’s awareness campaigns and Baalbek tours "contribute greatly to dispelling the ugly image painted of us".
"Baalbek is for all people and not owned by anyone," she said. "We need such nonpartisan civil associations to restore our prestige."
What the association and other civil society organisations are doing "is very important, because it changes the prevailing stereotype", social media expert Nada Hamza told Al-Mashareq.
Civil society has an important role to play in releasing areas such as Baalbek from the grip of sectarian and partisan narratives, Hamza said.
Safe Side is doing a good job "in restoring Baalbek's splendour" and dispelling the unbefitting image painted of it, she added.