Forget the war, says Syria’s tourism minister, head for the beaches

Friday 08/05/2015
Syrians ride \'tourist train\' following re-opening of rail route

DAMASCUS - Amid a new surge of fight­ing in Syria’s 4-year-old civil war, the govern­ment, with a timing that is either daring or de­mented, has come up with a plan to revive the battered tourist industry that generated $8.3 billion in 2010 — hit the beaches!
“We won’t wait until the war ends,” Tourism Minister Bishr Yazigi told The Arab Weekly.
“We’ll do our best to revive this vital blood vessel that nurtures the economy,” he declared as he out­lined an ambitious plan to promote tourism by Syrians and reconstruct historical and religious sites dam­aged in the war. The hordes of for­eign tourists who flocked to Syria before the war will have to wait, it seems.
The plan, to refurbish once-bus­tling resorts along the Mediterra­nean coast, may be a desperate ef­fort by the beleaguered regime of President Bashar Assad to show it is “business as usual”, although it is difficult to believe that war-battered Syrians will be able to respond to Yazigi’s clarion call to hit the beach­es.Needless to say the Syrian con­flict, in which more than 200,000 people have been killed and 3 mil­lion become refugees, has left the once-flourishing tourism industry in ruins.
In 2010, the $8.3 billion earned from tourism accounted for 12% of gross domestic product (GDP), a 60% increase over 2009, according to Syrian government figures. Much of the revenue was generated from 4.6 million Arabs, 1.5 million Syrians living abroad and 2.3 million other tourists who visited.
Wartime losses are estimated at $1.3 billion a year since the conflict began. The number of visitors no­sedived by 98%. Journalists and foreign delegations accounted for the other 2%. At least 370 touristic establishments have closed and 11% of the population, which was previ­ously employed in the sector, has been left jobless.
In 2014, the government unveiled plans to encourage tourists to Lata­kia, a Mediterranean city that was once a prominent destination for lo­cal and Arab sightseers on the Medi­terranean.
However, the province — the heartland and power base of As­sad’s minority Alawite regime — has been the scene of heavy fighting in several bungled offensives by Islam­ist and other rebels seeking to top­ple the Damascus regime. In Hama, Yazigi’s ministry has been trying to attract small and medium-sized tourist projects, including a hotel and a recreation centre equipped with Jacuzzi, sauna and steam rooms.
Three UNESCO World Heritage Sites in Syria — Palmyra, Krac des Chevaliers and the Aleppo Citadel — have been badly, possibly irretrieva­bly, damaged but they are still being marketed as potential safe destina­tions by Yazigi’s ministry.
As for religious sites, the govern­ment is promoting pilgrimages as it renovates churches in Maaloula, a Christian-majority village north of Damascus and the only place in the world where Aramaic, the language spoken in Jesus’s day, is still spo­ken. The government recaptured Maaloula from Islamic State (ISIS) militants last April, following the destruction of several of its religious and historic sites.
Many of archaeological sites were looted or sabotaged by smugglers for financial gains.
UNESCO warned against the menace facing Syria’s priceless heritage. The UN agency listed six archaeological locations as endangered world heritage sites, among them are the Old City in Aleppo, Busra al-Sham and the Pal­myra ruins. Yazigi said although the Syrian army has retreated from eco­nomically viable oil fields captured by militants in Syria’s central and eastern regions, “we insist on pre­serving and protecting the ruins of Palmyra”.
A Damascus travel agent told The Arab Weekly he had received inquir­ies from European travel agencies about the possibility of organising tourist trips to Syria. He declined to elaborate and identified himself only by his first name, Elias.
Yazigi concurred, saying, “We’re constantly receiving requests to re­ceive tourist groups but we’re tak­ing things easy, because the safety of tourists is a top priority as far as tourism is concerned.”
He said 17 French tourists — all of them of Syrian descent — arrived in April and visited a number of sites in the Damascus countryside, Homs and the coastal areas. “Poli­tics govern everything,” a 25-year-old receptionist at a three-star hotel in Marjeh, a downtown Damascus neighbourhood, told The Arab Weekly. He identified himself by his first name, Mufeid.
“We used to receive people from the Arab Gulf, Sudan, Asia, stu­dents, workers and tourists,” he lamented. “Nowadays, displaced people are sleeping in the streets and they’re unable to secure a hotel room. Prices have increased by six or seven times. We have vacancies but no tourists.”