Lebanon’s Wanderful Hub opens doors to women travellers from around the world

Lebanon’s Wanderful Hub opens doors to women travellers from around the world

Once a popular tourism destination, Lebanon enjoyed its reputation as the “Paris of the Middle East”. It used to be just as famous for its incredible cultural heritage as it was for its lively Beirut nightlife and internationally renowned cuisine.

Even now, as the country grapples with danger posed by the conflict between Hezbollah and Israel on its border, tourism remains one of the few areas of Lebanon’s economy that continues to prosper, although the industry is now being driven by expats returning to visit their homeland rather than international tourists.

For many foreign travellers looking for their next destination holiday, Lebanon simply isn’t on the radar, but eco-tourism entrepreneurs Joelle Sfeir and Nada Raphael are looking to change that. They are aiming to foster a travelling community for women, even in the midst of the regional conflict.

The duo have partnered with global lifestyle brand and community Wanderful to launch the travel collective’s first local hub in the Middle East.

“Seeing how well neighbouring countries are doing – promoting themselves as destinations to major, sustainable companies and communities – made us realise that the lack of a central power, and the will to target non-traditional outlets, is harming us,” Sfeir told The National. “So, we took it upon ourselves to lay the first foundations.”

“We want to bring together women in the travel and tourism industry to get to know each other,” said Raphael, “and to collaborate, all in pursuit of our main goal of promoting Lebanon and boosting the economy.”

With a global community of more than 45,000 women worldwide in more than 50 cities across the US and Europe, Wanderful wants to help women travel the world by connecting them to each other, from backpacking tourists and travel influencers to professionals and business owners. It also hopes to create a more equitable global travel industry by providing a platform for marginalised and underrepresented voices.

The Lebanon hub represents Wanderful’s first foray into the Middle East, but the team hope to expand further in the region.

“Women are travelling more than ever before,” says Wanderful founder and chief executive Beth Santos. “We are making the decisions; we are spending money. Yet the world has never been designed for women. But it can be. That’s why Wanderful exists.”

Sfeir and Raphael have a great deal of experience working inside the tourism industry within Lebanon. As co-founders and cooperators of TourLeb, they specialise in bringing visitors to areas of the country that are often not covered by other travel agencies. By avoiding what might be seen as typical city breaks in Beirut, they instead highlight the natural beauty, culture, customs and people of rural Lebanon, supporting smaller, more isolated communities.

First brought together by the WITS Travel Creator Summit – Wanderful’s tourism industry event centred around promoting innovation, dynamic collaborations and change in the travel business – Santos, Sfeir and Raphael’s joint project quickly gained momentum.

“The unfortunate situation last October seemed like the perfect moment to start working on the hub,” says Raphael. “And convincing the Wanderful team to create a hub here wasn’t very hard. They were very excited by the idea.”

Sfeir adds: “Our main competitors in the region are places like Turkey, Israel, Jordan and Egypt: destinations westerners go to because they offer experiences like hiking trails, good food and safety for women travelling alone. We want Lebanon to become a destination people keep coming back to.”

Unfortunately, while there are many layers to what Lebanon has to offer potential visitors, the country has acquired something of an unfavourable reputation based on an unstable political situation that has only been exacerbated by recent events, including the Covid-19 pandemic, the economic crisis, the Beirut blast and the Israel-Gaza war. Most players in the local tourism industry focus almost exclusively on catering to the Lebanese diaspora, which narrows the international profile of the country even further.

“Those of us who want to sell Lebanon differently are still not banding together, at least not successfully,” says Raphael. “The Wanderful Lebanon Hub’s main purpose is to bring together those women to meet, discuss, learn from one another and pool support. We need to help each other; anything that will help strengthen this sisterhood.”

For now, the first step of the new hub is building up the local Wanderful community, and learning the needs of women working in Lebanon’s travel industry in order to develop it further. Building on that foundation, the ultimate goal is to bring people together to successfully promote Lebanon to women in the rest of the world.

“Once the hub has really started, we can begin organising conferences, meetups and major events or trips. The possibilities are endless, but we have to take it one step at a time,”

“This small country has so much to offer,” concludes Sfeir. “The potential is absolutely massive. We could advertise visiting Lebanon in many words, but – no matter how hard we try – we’ll never be able to match the actual experience of seeing it all.”

Updated: June 28, 2024, 8:03 AM

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