A personal account from our contributing writer Erin Henk
It was two days before my family and I were scheduled to move to Beirut.
In the midst of the chaos of packing and shedding the seemingly endless amounts of stuff we’d acquired from nearly four years of living in Paris, I was trying to check “get a haircut” off my to-do list. As sat in the salon chair, zoning out, my phone started buzzing with texts from faraway friends.
“Oh my god, huge explosion in Beirut!”
“It looks like a nuke just went off.”
I immediately scrambled to find out more information, my fingers frantically typing and scrolling. What was going on? What was happening and what did this mean for Beirut? And (selfishly) what did it mean for us?
We were about to embark on a big move that would start a new chapter in our lives. Perhaps this would mean that our plans would have to change?
What unfolded over the next few days in the tale of the Beirut Port explosion of August 2020 was the heartbreaking and enraging story of unbelievable negligence and corruption. The explosion killed more than 150 people, injured more than 5,000, and left thousands more homeless, jobless, and traumatized.
This was all due to a large stockpile of highly-explosive ammonium nitrate, which had been left sitting in a warehouse for about six years while no one in government bothered to do anything about it until a fire is said to have started in the warehouse.
We decided to forge ahead with our plans to move once we learned more. My husband left for Beirut two weeks after our initially scheduled date to start his new job. My son and I followed about three weeks later.
“Are you sure?” asked everyone from my cardiologist to my close friends when we said that we, indeed, were still moving to Lebanon.
But this is Lebanon….
With a history that includes 15 years of civil war and chaos, terrorism, along with neighbour issues with Syria and Israel, Lebanon, and Beirut in particular, still hasn’t completely shaken its reputation for being synonymous with war and violence.
While we haven’t looked back since coming here, it’s understandable that in a country like this, nestled in the heart of a region like the Middle East, many may wonder whether or not it is really safe to bring your family to Lebanon?
Depending on who you ask, Lebanon is likely going to be a place where opinions on safety for travellers may vary, particularly for families.
While a certain amount of instability and unpredictability comes with the territory in Lebanon (so to speak) it is nonetheless a place where you can bring your family, have wonderful experiences, and forge some lifelong memories, as long as you keep your wits about you and follow some basic safety guidelines and practices.
- Lebanon, Yesterday and Today
- What Do The Travel Advisories Say About Lebanon Now?
- Lebanon Travel Safety
- Safety and Getting Around in Beirut with kids
- So is Lebanon Really Safe to Visit?
- More on Visiting Lebanon
Lebanon, Yesterday and Today
A tiny nation (about a quarter the size of Switzerland), Lebanon’s more recent history has been tumultuous and complicated and warrants more explanation than we can include here. But here’s a very brief overview:
Lebanese Civil War
From 1975 to 1990, the nation was plagued by a complex civil war in addition to separate occupations by Syria and Israel. Today, tensions remain with Israel to the south.
Syria’s civil war has also brought between 1-1.5 million (estimates vary) displaced Syrians into Lebanon as well since it began in 2011, which has put a strain on already weak infrastructure and services.
Palestinian in Lebanon
In addition to the current Syrian crisis, the country is also home to about 475,000 Palestinians (again, estimates vary); many of whom are deemed stateless by the Lebanese government, live in designated camps, and are denied government assistance and legal residency.
Hezbollah in Lebanon
Contrary to the old rumours, Lebanon is not a hotbed of terrorism. This reputation most likely comes from the fact that the country is the birthplace of Hezbollah. However, if you avoid the Hezbollah-controlled areas of the country, there is no need to let this be a reason for you to not travel to Lebanon.
While tensions between Hezbollah and Israel ignited into a month-long war during the summer of 2006, Lebanon has been largely free from war and widespread violence since the end of the civil war.
Lebanese Economic Crisis
Today, Lebanon’s biggest problems are mainly rooted in the impacts of an incredibly grave economic crisis, an unstable and corrupt government, and inadequate and overstretched infrastructure and services, all of which can understandably cause civil unrest.
The World Bank has called Lebanon’s enormous economic and financial crisis one of the top 10 most severe crises globally since the mid-19th century [source: World Bank]. Compounding this is the government’s lack of initiative and consensus to enact reforms to alleviate the situation so as to avoid upsetting the lifestyles of a privileged minority. (Ahem, corruption.)
The Lebanese pound has lost 90% of its value since 2019, which has plunged about 4 million families into poverty in roughly just two years [source: Save the Children].
As a result of such astounding depreciation and inflation, many Lebanese people who are paid in the local currency have seen the value of their salaries shrink to unlivable levels, making staples like food, medicine, and fuel largely unaffordable. (For example, many employed by the military or police who previously earned about USD 1,000-1,500 per month have seen their salaries shrink to USD 50-100 per month.)
As a result, much of the population is simply unable to support themselves or their families. However, with a large diaspora, a portion of Lebanese people are very reliant on remittances from family abroad to keep them afloat. Others who are fortunate enough to be paid in US dollars or who have bank accounts abroad can still live relatively comfortably.
That said, however, a visitor can easily see the contradiction of today’s Lebanon, one in which millions are struggling while restaurants and hotels remain full (with Lebanese people and not exclusively foreigners), traffic is a big issue, and new businesses are still opening up. (I’ve seen several open up in my own neighbourhood alone in just a year and a half.)
What Do The Travel Advisories Say About Lebanon Now?
You should always check relevant government advisories before planning to travel to Lebanon. But beware that some may outright warn you against visiting the country at all.
For example, at the time of writing, the U.S. Department of State had Lebanon marked at Level 4 Advisory, which instructs people not to travel to the country due to “crime, terrorism, armed conflict, civil unrest, kidnapping and Embassy Beirut’s limited capacity to provide support to U.S. citizens.”
Also, keep in mind that the situation here is dynamic and can change rapidly. If coming to Lebanon, it is wise to register with your embassy before your arrival and sign up for alerts if you can.
There are definitely areas of Lebanon you should avoid, of course, especially if you’re travelling with children. Some of the main areas are the following:
Travel within Beirut & Mount Lebanon:
This area is generally safe. However, Beirut’s southern suburbs have high rates of criminality and kidnappings, including the Camille Chamoun Sports City Stadium near Rafik Hariri International Airport; and the neighbourhoods of Bourj el Barajneh, which is Hezbollah controlled.
Within North Lebanon
It’s recommended to avoid going to the Bab al-Tabbaneh and Jabal Mohsen neighbourhoods in Tripoli, where occasional clashes have happened between Sunni and Alawi Muslims. These neighbourhoods are far from the city centre so you should be fine to visit Tripoli itself.
North of Tripoli is the Akkar District, which is also recommended to avoid.
Along the Syrian Border
Avoid all areas within 10 km of the Syrian border due to landmines.
North Eastern Bekaa Valley
This is an area heavily dominated and controlled by Hezbollah. It is also the region where you can visit the incredible historic ruins of Baalbek.
While it’s best to check the security situation immediately beforehand to see if there have been any changes on the ground, the ruins are normally totally safe to visit. You will see the distinctive yellow Hezbollah flags displayed in the site’s immediate vicinity, but don’t panic. The same advice goes for the cities of Zahlé and the ruins of Anjar, which are also in the region.
Avoid all areas to the south of the Litani River, near the Israeli border, excluding the coastal city of Tyre.
Palestinian Refugee Camps
There are 12 Palestinian refugee camps in the country, such as Shatila in Beirut and Ain al-Hilweh in Saida, which should be avoided.
Lebanon Travel Safety
Lebanon is incredibly diverse, especially since it’s so tiny. There are about 18 different religious groups represented here and Beirut itself is quite cosmopolitan and international; you’ll find people from all over the world here.
Previously known as the Paris of the Middle East, the city has been known for its nightlife and party scene, so people here are generally open to different types of cultures and dress. Arabic, French, and English are widely spoken by many, which should also help you navigate around the country.
As a whole, the Lebanese love children, so it’s likely that your small children will get a lot of attention during your visit.
The following are some things to be aware of during your trip:
Protests and social tensions
The economic crisis has definitely made things more tense and unpredictable in Lebanon. Since the revolution of 2019, when people (rightfully so) began protesting government corruption, unemployment, and a host of other things, demonstrations have continually flared up in different places in and around Beirut; some have occasionally blocked highways for several hours, making it difficult to travel by car.
To be safe, steer clear of such protests as best you can; signing up for embassy alerts could be of help to keep you abreast of the situation.
The economic crisis compounded by the impacts of COVID-19 has caused an increase in criminality, so it’s best to take standard precautions when carrying cash and valuables around the city and at tourist sites like the ruins of Baalbek.
Other nuisances you may encounter in Beirut and Lebanon
You will most certainly encounter many people who will ask you for money, many of them children. It’s not unusual to be approached multiple times on a daily basis and it’s heartbreaking to witness.
Some people can get a bit aggressive when asking for money. (I’ve had people asking me for more, saying what I gave them was not enough.)
Children especially can be quite persistent, but it’s all understandable considering the situation in the country. (Since many children can be forced to beg due to trafficking and other harmful reasons, I usually try to give away food as much as possible.)
If you don’t want to give, just bear in mind that you may likely have to say a firm “la, shukran” (no, thank you) or “no, sorry” to get the message across.
Also, keep in mind that if you dine on the street side you are guaranteed to be approached multiple times. You may prefer an inside table instead.
You may also be approached around certain historic sites by people who want to be your guide and immediately start spouting some historical facts. Again, a firm “no thank you” should do it. (You may find a similar story over in our safety guide to Egypt!)
Shortages in Lebanon
Infrastructure is undeniably poor in Lebanon. This means safety standards are lower. The public electricity is only available a few hours per day so you may encounter stores and restaurants without power, or power cuts happening while you’re out to dinner, for example. Don’t panic. It’s normal.
Most hotels, especially larger ones, will have generators, making the cuts last only a minute or two. Smaller, family-owned or boutique hotels may have periods (typically during the night) when the power cuts for several hours.
Many medicines for chronic conditions are currently unavailable in Lebanon due to the situation so be sure to come prepared with your own supply of any necessary medication.
Medical Care in Lebanon
Also, many of Lebanon’s top professionals, like doctors, have left the country since the start of the economic crisis. But there are still reliable hospitals in Beirut where one could go for urgent medical care, such as:
- Lebanese American University Medical Center-Rizk Hospital
- American University of Beirut Medical Center
Safety and Getting Around in Beirut with kids
With the exception of the corniche, Beirut isn’t the most pedestrian-friendly city, so it’s wise to pay attention when walking around. Uneven, jagged and disappearing sidewalks can be dangerous.
Also—and it might be needless to say here—but be extremely careful when crossing the street. No one really plays by the rules of the road in Lebanon, and most drivers go the wrong way down one-way streets and think nothing of it.
Frequent power cuts also often mean traffic lights often are not working. I am still amazed by how many drivers surmount this hurdle and safely get from one place to another.
Another option is to book taxis in advance through local companies like Allo Taxi (which has an app you can download) where you can know the price and type of vehicle beforehand.
Street taxis have red and white license plates, but they can be confusing to take so it’s probably best to arrange transport through the alternatives.
More Lebanon Travel Safety Tips
- Use bottled water, even for brushing your teeth, as the water is not safe to drink.
- Trash collection and sanitation can be an issue and one can frequently one can find trash blocking sidewalks and walkways. It’s another reason to be careful where you are walking.
- Gunfire is not uncommon to hear in Beirut. It can often be attributed to birthday celebrations and funerals. If you are outside and hear gunshots try to move inside as quickly as you can.
- You will often see a heavy military presence in Beirut especially. While travelling through the country, you will encounter military checkpoints. They are nothing to be necessarily nervous about. Be polite and friendly and have your ID on you always just in case. (I’ve never once been asked for mine.) Also, refrain from taking photos of anything related to the military as it’s forbidden.
- Finally, there’s money. Be aware that the prices of many things change on a daily basis so it’s always wise to verify the price of something before you buy.
- Be sure to bring cash with you (preferably in USD) to avoid using ATMs and fluctuating exchange rates as much as possible.
So is Lebanon Really Safe to Visit?
In a nutshell, research the country’s security situation before your trip, practice street smarts, and keep these points in mind. There’s no reason you and your family can’t have an amazing trip to this beautiful country.
More on Visiting Lebanon
Don’t miss our further family-friendly guides to exploring Lebanon with kids:
- Best of Beirut with Kids
- 12 incredible places to visit in Lebanon
- The best time to plan a trip to Lebanon
- What to pack for your trip to Lebanon
Save this to Pinterest for Later
This post was written by contributing writer Erin Henk. A humanitarian aid and development worker, she has lived with her family in Beirut since 2020. Facts correct as at the time of publishing May 2022.