Ever since we started laying out our Syria travel itinerary, we faced the question: Should we go to Lebanon? The Syrian is Lebanon’s sole overland border (the border with Israel being closed), and Beirut is only about 3 hours from Damascus. The two countries share a great deal of history, having only been divided into separate political entities in the 20th century, by the French. All in all, the two countries make sense to combine into one itinerary. We even had a dual-entry Syria visa, making it easy for us to visit Lebanon and return. [Lebanon itself issues visas on arrival at the border. Syria will also grant visas on arrival at the border with Lebanon, but the wait can take several hours, especially for Americans.] Even after we decided to spend at least most of our time before Iran in Syria, we much wanted to visit Baalbek, which is said by many to be the greatest Roman ruin in the Middle East and can be daytripped from Damascus.
But weighing against these facts were the travel advisories we read. The U.S. State Department “strongly urge[s] that Americans defer travel to Lebanon and that American citizens in Lebanon consider carefully the risks of remaining.” This is a fairly high standard of warning from the State Department, telling Americans who are already there to consider leaving. The U.K. Foreign and Commonwealth Office advises against “all but essential travel” to Lebanon, and urges special caution “when travelling in the Northern Beka’a valley and the mountainous areas bordering Syria where extremist groups and smugglers continue to operate” and “on the border with Syria, where the situation remains tense.” Our trip would of course take us to the border, and Baalbek is in the Bekaa Valley, a “stronghold” of Hezbollah. The Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade’s advice for the Bekaa Valley: “Do not travel.” [And for the rest of Lebanon, “Reconsider your need to travel.”] To top it off, we met one American who had just spent time in Beirut and was dissuaded from going to Baalbek by his Lebanese host, who believed it unsafe.
Then we met in Palmyra a Frenchman who was working for the UN as an observer in Lebanon, and ensured us that Baalbek was fine. Some others we spoke to in Syria also thought that Baalbek would be perfectly safe, and we had heard of other tourists (including tour groups) going to Baalbek with no problems.
So we went, as a daytrip from Damascus. The ruins? Phenomenal, but I will save that for another post. As for safety? There were some Hezbollah posters up, but they looked no different than ads for any political party around the world, other than perhaps the dress of the candidates (camouflage and religious dress). [Hawkers near the ruins were also selling souvenir Hezbollah t-shirts.] There were several military and police checks on the way, which in this instance gave a feeling of security, that things were under control. People in the town of Baalbek were friendly, and, coming from Syria, seemed quite modern and western, with significant visibility of Christians as well–I personally could not see it as a hotbed of Islamic fundamentalism. At least from the way things went for us, not to go on safety grounds would have been silly.
Perception of safety is a funny thing. On our way back to Damascus, we met a Lebanese man who, upon hearing that we were going to Iran after Syria, reacted strongly negatively: “Especially since you guys are Americans… Are you sure you want to go there? Is it safe? Do you think it’s safe for you? Unless you’re Rambo. You should go to Dubai, Syria, Lebanon, these places. Not Iran.” Another, “You’re going to Iran, but you’re wondering whether Lebanon is safe?” Note that the U.S. State Department only says that one should “carefully consider the risks of travel to Iran”–a much lower warning than Lebanon. And Iran, for all of its tension at the geopolitical level, has not recently been in a state of war, like Lebanon. Yet the Lebanese people, who consider their country western-friendly and modern, and indeed it is in many ways one of the most western-friendly and modern in the Middle East, can’t imagine that home could be potentially less safe than an Islamic republic that is considered a threat to the west.
What we’ve been using for travel advisories:
We find that the U.S. State Department’s website (link) is hard to use, and the travel advisories needlessly formally written and uninformative. The UK and Australia seem to do better jobs, and, after some looking around, I decided to subscribe to the mailing lists provided by the UK FCO. Updates are incredibly prompt, catching timely stories such as the recent Tibetan protests, risks related to upcoming elections, etc., all emailed directly to me. FCO Website. Australian Website, also with email subscription. We’ve also asked a friend familiar with our itinerary to keep up-to-date with the travel advisories and the news and update us by SMS with any important news, in case we are unable to check email/websites.
On a related note, we found that the Scottish Department of Health maintains an excellent travel health website, Fit for Travel, with the most detailed malaria maps we’ve seen (although I wonder whether Hainan Island is really malarial).
May addendum: Given the recent violence in Lebanon, perhaps one should pay more attention to travel advisories after all! I do think, however, in a country as sophisticated as Lebanon, it would be relatively easy for a tourist to steer clear of danger.