With ill-timed effort, Syria casts light on region’s tourism woes

By Michelle Baran

Reports of a new tourism initiative that was launched by the Syrian government last month likely elicited more disbelief than serious consideration by anyone even remotely familiar with the country’s current political climate.

Needless to say, a brutal civil war does not make good tourism bait. But beyond what most would agree was a ridiculously timed effort to begin bringing visitors back to a country where more than 100,000 people have reportedly died in violent clashes over the past three years, the news that Syria is hoping to rebuild its tourism economy is more broadly instructive.

It brings to light just how the conflict in Syria has damaged not only tourism in that country but in nearby countries, as well.

Great Mosque of Damascus“With the Syria crisis and with the Arab Spring in general, things dropped dramatically for us,” said Malia Asfour, director of the Jordan Tourism Board for North America.

Asfour noted that Jordan’s tourism industry has been in decline since 2011 and that only this year has the country begun to see its visitor numbers climbing back up. Travel from the U.S. to Jordan grew 13% for Q1 2014 compared with last year, he said.

Before the civil war broke out in 2011, Syria had actually been experiencing strong growth in tourism. In 2009, it was on track to welcome more than 6 million travelers. What’s more, Syria’s tourism minister said the country expected the number of its tourists to double every five years.

“It is one of the oldest countries in the world,” said Mahmood Poonja of Bestway Tours & Safaris, a Canadian tour operator that had been selling Syria for more than 15 years prior to the war. “Damascus is the oldest living capital in the world. There is a lot that the country has to offer.”

But for now, Bestway, like most tour operators that had been taking Western clients there, is not doing business in Syria. The U.S. State Department last month reissued a warning advising against travel to Syria and strongly recommending that any U.S. citizens remaining in Syria depart immediately.

Operators still in the region said they could not begin to guess when the situation in Syria will stabilize.

Yet amid all the chaos and bloodshed, the Syrian government last month unveiled plans to amp up its tourism offerings this summer by giving the seaside city of Lattakia a face-lift and undertaking hotel improvement projects, according to news reports.

Sadly, some of the country’s most important historical sites, the places that could eventually help lure tourists back after the current crisis is over, have been badly damaged during the fighting.

There are six Unesco World Heritage sites in Syria, including the ancient cities of Damascus, Bosra and Aleppo, and all six have been damaged, in some cases extensively, due to the fighting, according to the United Nations agency.

Last month, Unesco established an effort to protect what remains of Syria’s significant cultural sites and stop what it termed the “cultural hemorrhage” taking place in the country.

Operators noted that one key difference between the crisis in Syria and the crisis in Egypt is that while Egypt, too, has suffered its share of political violence and challenges since the January 2011 revolution there, the archaeological sites remain intact.

Following a presidential election last month that took place with relatively few incidents, Egypt is expected to bounce back much sooner than Syria.

“Look for Egypt to make a big comeback very soon,” said Florine Herendeen, client services director for Journeys International. “Inquiries there are increasing, and we are looking to bookings starting for the fall.”

Follow Michelle Baran on Twitter @mbtravelweekly. 

Photo of the Great Mosque of Damascus courtesy of Shutterstock.com 

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