Surfin’ Lebanon: water sports festival goes on despite country-wide strife

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Applications by foreigners seeking an adventure in the Lebanon Water Festival this month have been canceled due to fears over security risks in the country.

The festival, which started on Sept. 6 and ran until Sept. 29, seeks to entertain visitors by introducing new forms of water sports in Lebanon. Organizers expected participants from outside the country but were forced to withdraw the international application form due to violence in Lebanon.

“We literally removed registration forms for internationals because we were asked by the authorities not to take the risk of gathering people. After all, the whole point is to create fun and positive news about Lebanon,” Annette Khoury, who founded the festival along with her father and acts as its vice president, told Al Arabiya English.

Recent attacks in Lebanon, including an Aug. 15 car bombing in Beirut and an Aug. 23 attack on two mosques in Tripoli, led to the decision to stem international participation in the event.

The organizers were expecting foreigners to take part in its underwater photography competition, including the world-acclaimed Argentinian diving photographer Luis Perez Suarez.

“We had 22 foreigners coming, but we had to cancel three days before the event because of the situation here, nobody wanted us to take the risk of bringing so many people,” said Khoury, whose father was Lebanon’s world water ski champion in 1957.

While registration forms for foreigners were retracted, others, described by Khoury as “not so conservative” still made it to the event.

Among the water skiers that took part in the festival’s events were 14 Americans, as well as participants from Croatia, Russia and Turkey.

Khoury and her father are keen to see water sports in Lebanon thrive in order for the country to hold future international sporting events.

“What we tried to do is to work with local organizers. We tried to bring them to learn how to do it themselves, so that it grows from within, and is not centered around us,” she said.

“The more we hold festivals, the more we can slowly attract foreigners and ready local organizers to be capable to hold more fully-fledged water sport activities and events.”

Last year, the festival offered underwater photography for the first time, along with a sailing and a water skiing competition. But this time, the festival added three more water sports: surfing, stand up paddling and kite boarding.

“We did a night show for the first time in Lebanon. It was a mixture of a water ski show and fireworks,” Khoury said, describing it as “gorgeous.”

“It was something that people fell in love with. And what was great was the public response and how they exchanged pictures on social media.”

Khoury is confident of her country’s beauty and her organization has mapped it to prove it. Water sports fans are now able to search the internet to find pinpointed locations of the best locations to kite board, according to where the strongest winds are blowing, courtesy of Khoury and her team.

She hopes that the shores of the Mediterranean could once again attract tourists after a sharp decrease in the travel industry.

Charles Arbid, head of the Lebanese Franchise Association, disclosed dismal figures when he said that the country’s tourism industry was “down by at least 20 to 25 percent” year-on-year, according to a recent interview with The Daily Star.

But Khoury shows no signs of slowing down.

“I am sure by next year, the festival will spread to be longer than one month to give more room for each individual sport. I am sure more internationals will come,” she tells Al Arabiya English.

Sure of Lebanon’s appeal and the enchanting appeal of the shores of the turquoise Mediterranean, Khoury beleives that “foreigners love it.”

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