As my Italian and I discovered the hard way after being turned back from a number of roadblocks, one must have permission from the Lebanese government to visit certain regions in the south of Lebanon. After some confusion with soldiers that did not speak English, we were informed that official permission can only be obtained by applying in person at the military headquarters in Sidon (also commonly referred to as Saida).
Sidon is easily reached by following the coastal highway south of Beirut. However, once in Sidon things got a bit trickier for us. Everything one can find online just indicates that permission must be obtained in Sidon. A conversation with Lebanese soldiers will give the same answer.
Okay, but WHERE in Sidon?
Sidon is a big city and things like addresses and street signs don’t really exist in Lebanon anyway. And taxi drivers will likely not understand what it is that you want (I’m speaking from experience on that one). Also, there are a large number of military facilities in Sidon in places that are well out of the way, so just showing up at random military installations won’t do you much good either.
After a day of frustrating searching filled with false leads and dead ends, we finally found a Lebanese man who not only knew where the facility we needed was, but actually drove us there. Needless to say, we were exceedingly grateful.
So, where is this place? The GPS coordinates are:
N 33 33.200
E 35 23.007
If you are not in possession of a GPS unit, you can enter the GPS coordinates listed above into an online maps program like Google Maps and it will show you the exact spot (which you can print out or enter into your phone or whatever).
It is a large military facility, but you can just go to any one of the entrances and you will be sent to the right place to go. When you enter, you will need to hand over your mobile phones, cameras and any other electronic devices. And, curiously, they also wanted my keys (Your possessions will, of course, be returned to you when you depart).
After entering the grounds of the facility, you will be directed to a cramped outbuilding with several friendly, but bored-looking, middle-aged men inside behind desks. Other military personnel are constantly coming by to socialize with these guys and so you will be directed to a bench underneath the many maps lining the walls while they are mixing their time socializing and working on your request.
You will be questioned as to where exactly you want to go and will have your details carefully recorded (Bring photocopies of your passport – they can do this for you, but it is appreciated if you save them the trouble). Then a series of phone calls will be made as your request works its way through the chain of command and those familiar with the area you wish to visit are consulted on current conditions.
Whether your request is granted or not depends mostly on current political conditions and the news headlines. So, in other words, recent kidnappings, Hezbollah/Israel skirmishes, Syria/Israel skirmishes, etc. will all damage your chances of having a request to visit southern Lebanon approved.
Oh, and a visit to Mleeta does not require special permission as long as you approach from the coast of Lebanon (accessing Mleeta by traveling south from the Bekaa Valley requires official permission).
I can’t guarantee that you will receive permission to visit wherever it is that you would like to visit in Lebanon’s south, but at least now there is something out there on how you can do it…