Mosques, maqams, cathedrals, monasteries, zawiyas, madrassas, a synagogue … the list of 83 historical religious sites selected for an imposing new coffee table book, published as part of the government’s “cultural religious tourism” project, is as varied as Lebanon’s religious landscape. “The book’s title, ‘Lebanon: Celebrating Our Diversity,’ is a message in itself,” says Roula Ajouz, project coordinator of the Cultural Religious Tourism (CRT) unit created by the Prime Minister, which includes representatives from the Ministry of Tourism (MoT) and other ministries. “Enough with the expression ‘inter-religious dialogue.’ It sounds like we’re living together because we have to,” adds Ajouz, who is also the general manager of Cedar Wings, Middle East Airlines’ inflight magazine. The book was published in English and Arabic, and distributed during the official launch of the religious tourism program at the Grand Serail on May 16. Six regional maps of Lebanon, which pinpoint 250 religious sites of interest, were printed for distribution across the country. A website was launched (www.sacredlebanon.com), and a six-minute documentary produced. All of this work was funded by the Italian Agency for Development Cooperation using $328,000 of a $462,000 grant. “It’s an initiative that can also generate important revenue for local communities and for the state. By developing this particular sector, Lebanon will improve its infrastructure network and create new job opportunities for hostels, museums, craftsmanship, artisans, small shops, and other tourist related activities,” Massimo Marotti, the Italian ambassador, wrote in an email to Executive. Needs and impact still unclear There has been no study yet on how many jobs the CRT project will create, but its second phase is already scheduled. “In phase two, which will be completed by the end of October, the experts will focus on two pilot sites: Qana, in south Lebanon, and a mosque in Tripoli. For this phase, Italy will contribute $69,186,” Ambassador Marotti said. According to him, “It’s understood that an approximate budget of $1.3 million will be needed over a period of two years to promote [an] additional 500 religious sites. Additional investments should come from private and public institutions.” The total amount of such investments remains unclear. Executive was able to consult partial estimates provided by Qabas, a Shiite association that promotes religious tourism. Qabas compiled a list of 24 sites that needed rehabilitation or additional infrastructure, with the total bill amounting to $7.2 million. The only other study that Executive was able to locate was a rural tourism strategy prepared by the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) for the village of Maghdouché near Saida, which houses the popular Christian sanctuary Our Lady of Mantara (Our Lady of Awaiting). The study was compiled after the World Tourism Organization officially declared the site an international religious tourism destination in May 2016. Currently, “Maghdouché lacks the basic tourism services and facilities, especially in terms of accommodation, lodging, and F&B services,” USAID wrote in its report. Among other expenditures, USAID estimates that the renovation and embellishment of the town would cost between $250,000 and $750,000, the creation of a museum would amount to $100,000, and the opening of new restaurants would range between $50,000 and $250,000. One can only speculate how much money would be needed to rehabilitate the thousands of religious sites scattered throughout Lebanon. Lebanon: A new destination for religious tourism? I will bite my tongue on USAID. Would you go?