Is Tyre the Mediterranean’s best-kept secret?

Story highlights

Tyre draws holiday-makers to its Mediterranean coastline.

City hosts one of Lebanon's five UNESCO World Heritage Sites

Shi'ite militia and political party Hezbollah popular in Tyre

Tyre, Lebanon CNN  — 

On a hot Friday afternoon, the Cloud 59 bar on Tyre’s long white sand beach is heaving.

Groups of friends chink glasses of arak, an aniseed liqueur, and pore over the mezze menu. Waiters – one sporting trousers printed with Bob Marley’s face – deliver orders to sun-seekers, who lounge on plastic chairs propped in the sand. Offshore, lucky snorkelers spot the sea turtles that swim here.

This picturesque summer scene could easily be mistaken for popular holiday hotspots such as Greece or western Turkey. But this is Tyre, in Lebanon, 80 km (50 miles) south of the capital, Beirut, and 16 miles straight up the coast from the closed border with Israel.

The city has a long history – and in 2017 it breaks stereotypes that paint Lebanon as a chaotic nation constantly on the brink of conflict.

Beach goers crowd a public beach in the southern Lebanese coastal city of Tyre.

“There is no one that comes to Tyre and doesn’t like it, or its atmosphere, or the people who live here,” Ahmed Fundi, a city resident, tells CNN. “In the summer, there are lots of parties and the atmosphere is great. Every summer is better than previous ones.”

Queen of the Seas

Tyre is Lebanon’s fourth largest city and is sometimes referred to as “Queen of the Seas.”

Behind the city’s port, narrow streets are lined with houses painted violet purple and periwinkle blue. Shops are full of fishing paraphernalia – ropes, replacement hooks, and the like.

In the Al-Fanar bar and restaurant, on a wooden platform overhanging the sea, customers in beach cover-ups and swimming shorts drink the local beer, Almaza, and dine on fish and chips, Lebanese-style – grilled with tartare sauce, lemon and slices of tomato.

What became of Beirut’s 1960s jet-set playgrounds?

The Triumphal Arch and palm trees at the Al Bass site in Tyre, Lebanon.

Founded more than 4,000 years ago, Tyre prospered as one of the main cities of Phoenicia, an ancient Semitic civilization.

It grew rich through trade of a vibrant purple dye made from locally harvested murex shells, and formed colonies that remain as cities today: Cadiz in Spain and Carthage in Tunisia.

When the Romans took Tyre – also known as Sur – in 64 BC, they built a splendid triumphal arch and one of the world’s largest hippodromes.

Scratch marks on the stone, supposedly where chariot riders took a bend too closely, are still visible.

These ruins, along with another complex, Al Mina, a kilometer or so away, comprise one of Lebanon’s five UNESCO World Heritage Sites.

The Al-Mina archaeological site in Tyre, Lebanon.

“Here we have some of the world’s largest and most important Roman ruins in the world,” Jalal, one of the site keepers who only wants to give his first name, tells CNN proudly.

Pointing to a large map of Tyre, he gestures to show that there are more ancient ruins lying underneath areas of the city covered by modern construction.

“We get visitors from France, Belgium, Holland, the UK – everywhere,” says Jalal (as he speaks, some Scandinavians leave the site). “They say: ‘If only there could be more archeological excavations here.’ We would make the two sites one, and it would be an enormous site.”

An emerging hotspot

Up-to-date visitor numbers for Tyre are hard to come by, but Philippe Tabet, owner of two boutique hotels in the city, says business is robust.

He opened Dar Alma in March 2015, and Dar Camelia two months ago.

“Dar Alma is fully booked from April through to the end of September,” he tells CNN. “Dar Carmelia is new, but occupancy is already very good.”

Four-fifths of his customers are Lebanese, while the others mostly hail from European countries such as France, Italy and Norway.

“I have many repeat bookings: some people have already booked now for next summer,” Tabet adds.

Lebanese girls ride a jet ski at the beach in the southern Lebanese city of Tyre.

In spite of Tabet’s buoyant business, Tyre remains a well-kept secret to many outside of Lebanon. Its far from tranquil past may have something to do with this.

After several previous episodes of violence, including the 1975-1990 Lebanese Civil War, the city suffered heavily during the July 2006 conflict between Israel and Hezbollah, the Lebanese political party and militia whose members mostly follow the Shi’ite branch of Islam.

In 2006, UNESCO issued an urgent appeal to both sides to spare Tyre’s Roman ruins from damage, warning that they faced “serious threat” due to the conflict.

Some foreign ministries, including the US State Department, still advise against travel to Tyre and Lebanon as a whole, citing, “threats of terrorism, armed clashes, kidnapping.”

The British Foreign Office told CNN there are no travel restrictions for Tyre but it recommends citizens closely follow its frequently updated travel advice regarding Lebanon. Similarly, France recommends vigilance but does not advise against travel.

A statue of the Virgin Mary sits in the fishing port in the Lebanese costal city of Tyre.

Yet Tyre has come a long way since the violence of the latter part of the 20th century and the beginning of this century.

“I have friends from Beirut who used to be scared of Tyre,” says Tabet, the hotel owner, himself from the southern city. “But they discovered it through coming to Dar Alma and they broke the fear.”

Hezbollah – whose name means “Party of God” – is very much still present in Tyre, where it commands widespread support. Yet this is not always the case elsewhere in Lebanon, especially amongst the country’s Christian and Sunni populations.

Two of the four city MPs for Tyre are from Hezbollah while the other two are from the Amal party, another Shia political movement and frequent ally in parliament.

According to Tony Badran, a research fellow with expertise in Lebanon and Hezbollah at Washington DC-based think tank the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, Hezbollah is popular in Tyre as the city is majority Shi’ite.

Tyre also “carries much symbolism for the party in relation to its resistance lore,” Badran tells CNN, referring to what Hezbollah sees as its role defending Lebanon against Israel.

Many outside the city, however, see Hezbollah in more menacing terms.

The US and the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) consider Hezbollah a terrorist organization while the UK also classes its military wing as such.

In 2006, militant group Hezbollah fought a war with neighboring Israel, resulting in the deployment of UN forces. Here, a boy lies on the beach in Tyre as Spanish UN troops arrive in the city.

Hezbollah souvenirs

On roads into the city, the party’s distinctive budgerigar yellow and green flags fly from every lamp post. Beside them are posters emblazoned with the faces of men killed fighting Israel and in Syria. But there is little hostility to visitors in Tyre. For a start, Hezbollah wants you to buy its souvenirs.

Souk vendors sell snap-band bracelets and keyrings adorned with the face of Hezbollah’s bearded Secretary-General, Hassan Nasrallah.

The organization’s flags are available to purchase alongside those of FC Barcelona and Real Madrid, the popular Spanish soccer teams beloved across the Middle East.

One seller shows off his CD collection: Religious anthems, Nasrallah speeches, and one new album of songs devoted to Hezbollah’s latest military action on the Syria-Lebanon border.

Mixing and mingling

It might seem odd that a city where the Islamist Hezbollah has widespread public support and political power also serves as a summer beach party hotspot. Alcohol is freely available, and women walk on the public beach in skimpy bikinis.

“There are Christians, Sunnis, and Shi’ites in Tyre and there aren’t problems between them,” insists Jalal, the archeological site keeper.

The yellow and green flag of political party and militant group Hezbollah (right) for sale at a stall in Tyre alongside those of soccer clubs FC Barcelona and Real Madrid.

Zouheir Halawi opened Tavolino pub in the winding streets behind Tyre’s port four years ago. It resembles a Spanish taverna: chairs sit beneath a low stone arched roof, and jars of olives line the bar.

“I wanted to do a proper pub, not a restaurant-bar or similar. I don’t have problems selling alcohol here,” he tells CNN, citing the city’s mixed population, made up of Christians, Shia and Sunni Muslims.

Testimony to that is the crowd in his pub one Thursday night – a group of friends of different sects all of whom are drinking and smoking.

“Everyone comes here, even the snobs I ran away from in Beirut,” continues Zouheir. “You have the easy life in Tyre, and it is as calm as you make it.”

That is not to say that there haven’t been tensions. In 2012 – before Tavolino’s launch – a series of bomb attacks in the city appeared to target shops selling alcohol, according to Reuters reports from the time.

Lenbanese Army soldiers secure the entrance of the restaurant which was rocked by an explosion early December 28, 2011 in the southern Lebanese city of Tyre.

Tyre on the rise

Today, however, Zouheir is more concerned about an influx of wealthy Lebanese and foreigners driving up prices and gentrifying Tyre.

“From a business point of view, it is good, but from a personal point of view, it isn’t. This is a Mediterranean city and it needs to be authentic.”

Tyre’s boutique hotels already do not come cheap: a suite at Dar Alma costs $330 a night.

A quiet residential area of Tyre, Lebanon.

Tabet responds to fears about gentrification with the belief that wealthy visitors bring money into Tyre.

“The hotels are expensive on purpose, to bring in a high-end clientele, who spend money in the city – I didn’t want a mass market hotel,” he says.

With accommodation dear, Tyre’s 4-kilometer-long free, public beach becomes all the more precious. Beaches without entrance fees are a rarity in Lebanon. Families from all walks of life jump in the warm waves and shelter from the heat under parasols.

And while it could easily be any manner of coastal Mediterranean cities or resorts, this is most definitely Lebanon.