(Fixes reference to hotel in 5th paragraph)
* Ski slopes empty, hotels vacant, shops closed
* Mild season hits flagging tourism industry
* Early warmth, lack of moisture threaten vineyards
By Stephen Kalin
FARAYA, Lebanon, March 11 (Reuters) - The mountains north of Beirut, usually a snowy winter playground for skiers and other tourists vital for Lebanon's services-based economy, are brown, muddy and completely empty this season.
Hotel rooms lie vacant and winter sports rental shops are idle, with the lack of snow deterring even the keenest visitors.
An unseasonably warm and dry winter - the mildest in decades by most accounts - has also endangered the harvest of vineyards which export prize-winning Lebanese wines around the world.
Along with worsening security problems and political gridlock, the fickle weather has exacerbated a three-year drop in tourism in this small Mediterranean country. Before the conflict in neighbouring Syria erupted in 2011, the sector generated about 10 percent of economic output.
"This is the first time the slopes have not opened at all," said Joost Komen, general manager of Intercontinental Mzaar, a large hotel and ski lodge in one of Lebanon's main resorts.
"That there is limited snow, it happens. But that there is absolutely no snow? No, this has never happened."
Komen told Reuters revenues were down more than 80 percent, directly affecting around 600 families dependent on hotel jobs. Ski instructors, rental shops and other businesses that benefit from seasonal activity have also taken a severe blow.
"God forbid we have another year like this. If it happens again, you'll see many shops shutting down," said one vendor, sitting in a parking lot full of idle all-terrain vehicles.
An early snowstorm in December battered the Middle East with high winds and dropped around 30 cm of white powder in Faraya. Many thought it was a harbinger of a long and cold winter to come. Aid agencies worried about hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees living in crude shelters at high altitudes.
But that first snowfall was not enough to open the slopes. There has been almost no precipitation since. Though it could still snow in March or even April, the damage has been done.
"What happened in January and February is gone. This is money unrecoverable," Komen said.
Marwan Barakat, chief economist at Bank Audi, said those two months witnessed a decline in arrivals at Beirut airport, one of few metrics available for analysing the tourism sector.
"This is probably due to some tourism foregone because of the adverse winter conditions," he said.
Lack of precipitation and mild temperatures are creating problems for vineyards and farms across Lebanon.
Government observations put rainfall through the beginning of March at less than half the average for this time of year.
Massaya vineyard, spread out over 40 hectares (100 acres) in the Bekaa valley, is one of several struggling to cope.
Ramzi Ghosn, the winemaker at Massaya, said the lack of moisture would cut volumes of wine production significantly, although it might not jeopardize the quality. "The more the vines suffer, the better the wine usually," he said.
But the mild winter will make vines start growing again and sprouting earlier than usual, meaning that a late winter storm or even just a brief cold spell could devastate the harvest.
"In Lebanon, we always said we don't have to worry about the vines because we have perfect weather...but we have to worry about other issues. This year, in addition to the geopolitical issues, we have to worry about the vines," said Ghosn.
Farmers of other crops are already feeling the effects of the abnormal winter weather.
Hassan Mheish, a farmer in the northern region of Tripoli, said the lack of rain had drastically reduced his almond crop and threatened to destroy the olive and lemon harvests.
Standing on dry, cracked soil in an olive grove he manages, he said the government should build dams and take other steps to alleviate the impact of dwindling water resources on farmers.
"The wells are drying up. Now they're mostly giving only mud and soil," the farmer sighed. (Additional reporting by Reuters TV; Editing by Alistair Lyon)
Our Standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.