12/10/2021, 13.08
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Damascus trying to brush up Syria’s international image through tourism

by Dario Salvi

Before the war, tourism represented more than 14 per cent of GDP, employing 8.3 per cent of the workforce. Two European tour operators are set to organise trips in 2022. Religious tourism is recovering thanks to Shia pilgrims from Iran, Iraq and Pakistan. For Christian scholar, tourism could jumpstart the economy and renew relations with the outside world.

Damascus (AsiaNews) – Syrians “have been punished collectively and unfairly” by international sanctions and the Caesar Act imposed by the United States, which are "the main reason for our economic crisis, our poverty, hunger and exhaustion” on top of ten years of war. As a result, “We feel that we have been exiled. Reviving tourism in our country might be a way to help us revive our collapsed economy, give us hope for a better future,” said Michel Azar, a Christian university lecturer in Damascus and an expert in economics and tourism.

For Azar, foreign travel and internal movements could be a turning point after long years of violence, suffering and conflict, which have isolated the country.

The tourist sector has suffered serious damages, compounded by obstacles that emerged following the war and the economic crisis, most notably energy shortages, which make it hard to run tourism-related facilities.

“For example, most of the hotels are unable to provide warmth or 24 hours of electricity due to the long cut in electricity and shortage of energy resources (in the countryside, they only have one hour of electricity every three days). We are back to the stone age.”

Before the war, tourism was one the mainstays of the Syrian economy, contributing up to 14 per cent of the Gross Domestic Product (GDP), employing 8.3 per cent of the local workforce.

However, despite huge difficulties, the number of foreign visitors in Syria has grown in the last year, this according to Tourism Minister Mohammed Rami Martini, who expects a return of European tour operators.

In 2021, the country had 488,000 foreign visitors, up from previous years. Two European operators – one based in the UL, the other in Germany – are already planning organised travel in 2022.

The country has much to offer, like the traditional markets of Damascus, the ancient city of Palmyra in the middle of the desert, and Krak des Chevaliers, a Crusader castle that is part of a millenary history excluded for far too long from international circuits.

COVID-19, which has decimated world travel, remains a concern; nevertheless, more and more people are back travelling to Syria.

Meanwhile, the Arab country is still at war, under sanctions, and subjected to brutal repression against domestic dissent, with more than a third of the population into exile.

“A month ago, my family and I visited Maaloula. We were sitting at a café when a group of French people arrived in a bus and entered a nearby convent,” said Michel Azar.

“We looked at them as if we had seen some aliens coming from outer space. It has been more than ten years that I haven't seen a tourist group in my country and for my children it was the first time. My daughter [. . .] was fascinated by hearing a group of people talking in French”.

This should be food for thought about the long-suffering country, which had been a “destination for thousands of tourists each year. They (the children) only know war stories and life difficulties that we are facing nowadays after war.”

It turned out that French group was part of a visit promoted by SOS Chrétiens d’Orient, a French Christian charity, which came to Syria for religious “work and tourism”.

For some travel agencies, “A lot of foreign people are entering Syria everyday, but not for tourism,” Azar explained. They are mostly “engineers, journalists and experts” coming for professional reasons.

“The only tourism which is still modestly active in Syria is tourism for religious purpose,” the Christian scholar noted. “A few tourist groups from Iran, Pakistan and Iraq are entering Syria to visit Shia sites.”

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