Scuds or no Scuds, south Lebanon beckons tourists

WAZZANI, Lebanon (AP) — Israeli claims that Hezbollah has obtained Scud missiles have revved up fears another war may break out soon. So it might not be the best time to try to turn the two nemeses' battlefield, south Lebanon, into a tourist destination.

But the south's rolling green hills, dotted with scenic olive and orange groves and watered with rivers, are seeing the construction of several new tourist sites near one of the most tense borders in the Middle East.

"This is my land, I was raised here, I have beautiful childhood memories here and Israel doesn't scare me," said Khalil Abdullah, the 56-year-old businessman behind the most ambitious project, the Wazzani Fortress resort.

Along the Wazzani River, which forms the border in this corner of southeast Lebanon, workers toil around the clock to finish the sprawling complex, built in the shape of a fort, along with windmills and stone arches. Among the $3 million project's plans are a restaurant where visitors can lunch while dipping their feet in the river, luxury chalets, a hotel and three swimming pools.

The area sits in the foothills of the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights, and Israeli soldiers often walk up to the other side of the river to gawk at the workers.

Abdullah, smoking a cigar and sipping a coffee under a straw umbrella in view of an Israeli military outpost, said he's not worried about the possibility of a new war.

"They call me crazy, but I am simply fulfilling a dream of mine," said Abdullah, who recently returned to settle in Lebanon after 40 years working as a contractor in Africa.

South Lebanon, the country's Shiite heartland, was long torn by fighting during Israel's 18-year occupation, which ended in 2000. Then it was devastated in the 2006 summer war between Israel and the Shiite militant group Hezbollah. Thousands of U.N. peacekeepers and Lebanese army troops now patrol the area along with mine-clearing teams and Hezbollah operatives.

Each year brings dire predictions of a new summer war.

Earlier this month, the fears were hiked when Israel accused Syria of providing the Iranian-backed Hezbollah with Scud missiles, which have a far longer range and can carry a much bigger warhead than the rockets Hezbollah fired at Israel in the past. Syria has denied the accusation, as has Lebanon's Western-backed prime minister.

Despite the tensions, Lebanon has actually seen an unusually long stretch of peace and relative political stability in the past few years, which has brought an unprecedented tourism boom. In 2009, nearly 2 million tourists visited the country — a record that exceeds even the glamorous years before the 1975-90 civil war.

The main tourist playgrounds are focused on Beirut and on the mountains and beaches of the central part of Lebanon. There is far less infrastructure for visitors in the south, where development has long been neglected in general amid the turmoil.

Still, there are small infrastructure efforts and many Wazzani restaurants are getting a renovation before summer in hopes of visitors.

European and American citizens require special permits from the Lebanese army to travel to border areas. But investors in the south are hoping to draw visiting Arabs and Lebanese, including the many members of the Lebanese diaspora from around the world who frequently visit their ancestral land in the summer.

In fact, the border tensions could even be a draw, with some touting a visit to the south as a way to deliver a political message to Israel.

In the border village of Maroun el-Rass, where some of the fiercest fighting between Hezbollah guerrillas and Israeli troops took place in 2006, up to 3,000 people now crowd a newly opened border park on weekends.

The $1.5 million Maroun el-Rass Park was a gift from Iran, which is believed to funnel weapons and millions of dollars in funding to Hezbollah, though Tehran denies arming the Shiite group.

The park has barbecues, swings for children and a small mosque with an Iranian flag on its dome. Work is also under way for a basketball court and football pitch. The park will be officially opened on May 25, the Liberation Day holiday marking Israel's withdrawal from Lebanon in 2000.

Lebanese visitors pose with friends and family for pictures with the Israeli border communities of Avivim, Zarit and Baraam in the background.

"It's a bit scary, to have Israel right there below us, but it's also a wonderful idea and a beautiful place," said Sarah Safieddine, a 19-year-old business administration student who rode in on a bus from Beirut with friends.

"We are defying Israel with projects like these," said Moussa Nasrallah, the Lebanese engineer in charge of the park project. "The idea was to show that this area that was leveled and where Israeli tanks were once positioned is now a booming place."

Tourism Minister Fadi Abboud says the border resorts are a smart idea and encourages Arab tourists "to visit them like a pilgrimage."

"This is a form of civilian resistance, which is even more important than military resistance," he told The Associated Press. "Resistance can be in going to have lunch, dinner or just a drink along the border."