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