Lebanese city opens Christmas market despite economic crunch

The coastal city of Batroun has witnessed a tourism boom amid the poverty and power cuts plaguing other parts of the struggling country

As the Lebanese capital languishes in darkness, Christmas festivities in the Northern coastal home town of President Michel Aoun's powerful son-in-law are bold and bright.

The sound of carols and the smell of roasted chestnuts filled the squares and the old souq of Batroun as hundreds of people gathered in front of Saint-Estephan Church on Saturday to celebrate the opening of a Christmas market despite Lebanon's nationwide financial meltdown.

The cash-strapped government has been unable to provide more than two or three hours of power a day across the country.

The opening of the market highlights the rare case of a city that has seen a tourism boom even as the country's economy collapses.

“Every year we shall meet again here, and Batroun will be one of the world’s Christmas capitals, like Strasbourg in France,” MP and former minister Gebran Bassil told a crowd in front of the Batroun church.

Mr Bassil, the leader of Lebanon’s largest Christian party, is a controversial presidential aspirant because he is a close ally of the Iran-backed militant group, Hezbollah.

An MP for Batroun, 55 kilometres north of Beirut, Mr Bassil was hit by US sanctions for corruption last year.

The presidential and parliamentary elections are due in Lebanon next year.

The international community has repeatedly accused Lebanese politicians of inaction in the face of their country's financial collapse, which was largely triggered by decades of corruption and economic mismanagement.

Festive season celebrations in ancient coastal cities like Byblos and Batroun have always succeeded in attracting domestic and regional tourists.

Beirut languishes in darkness during one of the Lebanese capital's chronic power cuts. Photo: AFP

Vendors and market-goers said they are just happy that they can enjoy the holiday spirit and forget their daily hardships.

Odette Chehade, 38, was selling lollipops and sweets in the old Batroun souq. In its small alleys, market-goers can buy artisanal bread, visit high-end restaurants or simply wander around chic art galleries.

The narrow street where she set up shop was full of people, children and tuk-tuks.

“People just want to live, be happy and feel the Christmas spirit,” the mother-of-two says, handing a lollipop to a customer from her tidy stand.

“Everyone feels down right now, but we want to try and live in the Christmas spirit.”

Batroun is a beach and party destination during the summer. The city still attracts people from all over Lebanon during the winter season.

Swimmers and paddleboarders enjoy a late sunny day in October off the coast of the northern city of Batroun. AFP

Arielle, 37, says she drove all the way from Beirut to see the market.

“This is the first time my son has experienced a Christmas market; he is so very happy,” she says, eyes beaming with joy.

“Batroun was always lively but it was not like this before. This is the first time they have organised such a big event.”

The organiser of the Batroun Christmas Capital event, Francois Baraket, plans to double the market’s capacity from the 83 vendors who took part this year. Mr Baraket aims to have more than 200 vendors during Christmas 2022, he said at the opening ceremony.

This year's event was financed by the municipality, private-sector sponsors and the Batroun traders' association.

Mr Baraket's plans for expansion echo claims by Walid Nassar, Lebanon’s Tourism Minister, that Batroun has become a hub for tourism in the country. He attributes this achievement to efforts by Mayor Marcelino Al Harek and Mr Bassil, who chose him for his post.

The Tourism Ministry started a campaign last month to promote the country. Its slogan was: "Lebanon: I love you in your madness."

“Lebanon is extreme in everything,” the minister told the crowd in Batroun.

“It would be impossible anywhere else to see such preparations and such a big gathering of people in these economic circumstances.”

Updated: December 5th 2021, 1:37 PM