BEIRUT: Flashback to 1990, Lebanon’s economy was at an all-time low, infrastructure was bullet-riddled and one could barely spot a tourist in the country that just got out of a 15-year-long civil war.
Slowly but surely, various entrepreneurial initiatives started budding across the country. Lebanese restaurants and nightclubs witnessed a boom in business, as did gyms, basketball courts, football fields, and even hiking teams.
One entrepreneur, however, had planned to push the boundaries of what could be possible in Lebanon, and that was Lebanese expat Raja Saade.
He had just moved back to his home country after a long stint in France. The entire world, including Saade, had just started hearing about paragliding, and it was quickly gaining popularity.
Having just received his flying certificate in Paris, he decided to found a business of his own, and in turn, Club Thermique was born. This gave rise to the first paragliding base in Lebanon, which still runs until this day.
After Saade moved back to Lebanon, Elie Mansour, who was 10 years old at the time, used to latch on to Saade to learn the sport and master it. Now, Mansour is a pilot at Club Thermique. He later became known as the youngest paragliding pilot in the Middle East, and one of the most famous in Lebanon.
“Raja was one of the pioneers of the paragliding movement worldwide,” said Mansour. “He brought it to Lebanon when people didn’t know about it.”
According to Mansour, people were perplexed by the paragliding phenomenon and they were initially hesitant. However, the club won the public’s trust and interest as time went by.
Club Thermique has reported no accidents since their launching in 1990, and have insurance ready at hand.
“Anyone who wants to try paragliding should ask for three main factors: the pilot’s certificate, insurance, and a rescue parachute," Mansour told Annahar, adding that these three factors are a must at Club Thermique.
“Thankfully, we never had to use the insurance or a rescue parachute because we've been extra careful. We want to show that paragliding in Lebanon can be safe,” he said.
Initially meant to show the beauty in Lebanon in its fragile post-war state, the club’s intentions have not shifted much over the past few decades.
“The main reason for Club Thermique’s existence was to boost tourism and show Lebanon’s beauty and that' s still the same thing we’re trying to achieve,” Mansour expresses.
He further noted that thousands of tourists and Lebanese expats who visit the club yearly express how amazed they were after witnessing Lebanon's beauty from above.
Located in Ghosta, right next to Harissa where the statue of the Virgin Mary stands, the scenery stretches from mountains covered in greenery to the Jounieh Bay, where paragliders land. The club is not only home to the first paragliding place in Lebanon, but it's also the first and only place to host hot air balloon rides, which Saadeh and Mansour also fly.
They also offer paragliding pilot lessons with certificates, hiking trips, winter sports, and they regularly train the Lebanese Army. They have been certified in safety of adventures by the Ministry of Youth and Sports and the Ministry of Tourism and were awarded the 2019 Certificate of Excellence by TripAdvisor.
Club Thermique offers paragliding daily from 9:00 a.m. to 7:00 p.m., with an almost constant influx of customers.
Nivine Al Kassar is one of those who have experienced the club’s paragliding.
“The magic of the Lebanese Mediterranean coast and the majestic mountains is what makes flying there special. You rarely get the chance to have such scenery anywhere else,” she said, adding: “Pilots Elie and Raja are very professional and make you feel safe and in good hands. It was a phenomenal experience.”
Club Thermique inspired numerous other paragliding companies after its foundation and it still is among the few with zero accidents on its record.
Maysaa Ajjan contributed to this article.
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