BEIRUT (Reuters) - Young Ukrainian models in flimsy lingerie spray champagne at a boisterous crowd of young Lebanese at a swanky beach resort south of Beirut -- barely a year after Israeli bombs were falling nearby.
Drinks in hand, shapely women in skimpy bikinis dance to the latest club song with men smoking Cuban cigars, underlining the image of a wealthy hedonist minority seizing any chance to escape their country’s political crisis and uncertain future.
The scene at the Oceana beach resort near Damour seems a world away from Lebanon’s sectarian tensions and political standoff symbolized by an opposition protest encampment that has paralyzed downtown Beirut for the past nine months.
The instability has crippled Lebanon’s tourist season, but at least some Lebanese are determined to ignore worries about a new civil war or the army’s three-month-old battle with Islamist militants at a Palestinian refugee camp in the north.
“We’ve lived through times with war and bombs. So it doesn’t make a difference to us any more. Blood doesn’t scare us,” said beachgoer Dany Zougheib, a 32-year-old computer expert, recalling the war between Israel and Hezbollah guerrillas.
Trying to recover from that conflict, some upscale resorts are luring customers back with lingerie fashion shows, open-air concerts or international disc jockeys -- Dutch DJ Tiesto drew a rapturous crowd of 15,000 to Edde Sands resort near Byblos in July, with ticket prices ranging from $35 to $75.
Oceana’s show on Sunday featured teenage Ukrainian models prancing on stage by the sparkling Mediterranean in everything from shimmery and diamante-encrusted bikinis to lacy underwear.
Their faux chain and faux fur lingerie along with kitsch French maid costumes attracted wolf whistles and furious camera clicking from Lebanese men -- many of them showing off body tattoos and designer boxers beneath their swimming shorts.
“Until three weeks ago, it seemed that people couldn’t forget the scars of last year’s war. But now Damour is back again,” said Fady Saba, Oceana’s general manager, referring to the coastal strip about 20 km (13 miles) from Beirut.
“I‘m not worried about Lebanese people. They’re forcing themselves to have fun because they want to forget. They don’t want to know anything about the crisis,” he told Reuters.
“WE WON‘T STOP LIVING”
It certainly seemed so at the weekend in Oceana where Lebanese were dancing non-stop at the pool bar, ordering copious bottles of wine or tanning lazily on private wooden platforms.
Away from the beach resorts, Beirut’s bar and club strips on Rue Gemayze and Rue Monot are once again heaving with people and pulsating with music into the early hours at weekends.
Lebanon has always been a favored tourist destination in the Middle East, especially for Gulf Arabs, because of its mild weather, beaches, nightlife and relatively liberal atmosphere.
While tensions between the Western-backed government and Hezbollah-led opposition have scared off most foreigners -- who usually account for up to 40 percent of Oceana’s clientele -- some Arab tourists just cannot stay away.
“I’ve been coming to Lebanon since 1995. It was hellish last year when we had to escape the war via Syria, but here I am again. I wouldn’t choose to spend summer anywhere else,” said Khaled al-Omari from Kuwait as he basked in the sun.
Young Lebanese were also adamant about making the most of their summer despite a brewing crisis over presidential polls.
“We’re worried about the presidential elections, but we’re not going to stop living until politicians agree on something,” said Mark Khoury, 26, lounging near the poolside bar.