The reception area is quiet at the Beit Zaman boutique hotel in the Christian Quarter of Old Damascus and the staff is visibly bored.
Bellhops loiter in the lavishly decorated corridors of the $200-a-night hotel and a receptionist stares idly at his computer screen.
Four months ago, Beit Zaman was full of European tourists, but after anti-government protests swept across Syria and security forces responded with a brutal crackdown, which human rights activists say has killed more than 1,400 people, tourists fled.
Rami Martini, head of the Federation of Chambers of Tourism, told a news conference recently that occupancy rates for hotels were “15 percent across Syria…and close to zero percent in Aleppo”.
Hotels grudgingly have sliced prices but few foreign visitors are willing to brave the unrest and venture to Syria, despite its magnificent ruins, bazaars and exotic atmosphere.
It is the eve of the summer high season but many souvenir shops are closed. Dozens of boutique hotels in the old town that were converted from traditional Damascene houses and were an instant hit with visitors stand empty.
“The tourists are too scared to come, but it’s not unsafe in the capital,” Abu Salah, who sells carpets, shawls and jewellery from a shop near one of the old walls encircling the city, said.
Sheltered from the sun by the massive walls, he passes the time playing backgammon and drinking tea with other salesmen.
“Tourists just believe everything they hear on the news, but most of the problems occur in poor areas,” he added.
In the restive provinces of Homs and Idlib, massive protests are a near-daily occurrence and the government has sent in tanks to re-establish control of some urban areas.
Damascus, though, is a hub for the wealthy merchant classes and loyalists to President Bashar al-Assad and there are few signs of the crisis facing the government elsewhere.
With a strong security presence in the capital, people say they are too scared to protest and those who do are promptly arrested. Protests have been small, mainly in the suburbs, and police quickly disperse them.
The rising death toll elsewhere in the country has prompted embassies from Australia, the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom and throughout Europe to issue travel advisories against all but essential travel to Syria.
The United Kingdom Foreign Office has advised “against all travel to the Syrian Arab Republic” and warned British nationals to leave Syria immediately “by commercial means whilst these are still available”.
Such travel warnings invalidate the insurance of many tour operators, including the British-based companies Exodus and Imagine Traveller.
“We have canceled trips up until September 2011,” Exodus PR manager Rob Dixon said. “We evacuated people from Libya by boat and took people out of Egypt. We don’t take any risks.”
The loss of tourism is the most discernible sign that the unrest has damaged the Syrian economy, creating fears in Damascus that more people, including the merchant class, could join the protest movement as unemployment and prices rise.
The drop in tourism has a knock-on effect. Restaurants and cafeterias are struggling and many buses go unfilled, especially those to tourist destinations suck as Krak des Chevaliers, possibly the best preserved crusader castle in the world.
“Although the anti-Assad protesters might not be able to take down the president through civil disobedience, the irreparable damage to the economy will,” a senior European diplomat in Damascus said.
Along with attracting foreign direct investment, the Syrian government has focused on the tourism sector in an attempt to diversify the economy away from oil, supplies of which are running down, and bring in much-needed foreign currency.
Capitalising on the scenic cities of Damascus and Aleppo, with their twisting souks and decorative mosques, and the ruins of Apamea, where a 1,850-m (yard) colonnade of Roman pillars stretches along the Orontes River, tourism in Syria has boomed in recent years.
The number of tourists leaped 40 percent in 2010, to 8.5 million visitors, according to the Ministry of Tourism, and visitors accounted for roughly 12 percent of the economy last year.
Syria has attracted visitors from other parts of the Middle East, including Iranian pilgrims to religious sites in Damascus. But after a series of state-sponsored promotional campaigns in Europe, the increase in 2010 was mainly from Germany, Spain, Italy, Britain and France – high-spending visitors.
Hotel managers had been gearing up for a busy 2011 season, with many hotels fully booked, some up to eight months in advance. There were plans to develop the capacity of the ancient walled city Damascus to accommodate 12,000 more visitors a week, according to an architect in the city.
But now the tourism sector is in tatters. Visitor numbers are yet to be released but there is little doubt that figures are depressingly low.
“Tourism is by far the most affected sector by the unrest,” a Damascus-based economist, who asked not to be named, said. “When the numbers for visitors to Syria come out, they will be extremely low and many hotels are either closing down or laying off staff.”
In recent years, Turkey became an important partner with Syria in the sector and the two countries signed deals to encourage bilateral tourism. Many Turkish and Syrian operators sell packages that include both countries.
Fleeing violence, 12,000 Syrian refugees have crossed the northern border into Turkey and Ankara has sharpened its rhetoric against President Assad, calling his crackdown “savagery”.
One tour operator in Damascus, who asked to remain anonymous, said the number of Turkish visitors to Syria is expected to plummet.
Facing a drop in regional and international visitors, the Syrian Tourism Ministry is focusing on domestic tourism in an effort to revive the sector next year by reducing fees to archaeological sites and providing “encouraging prices” for Syrian Arab Airlines domestic flights. But with many major highways blocked and curfews imposed in towns around the country, many Syrians are staying home.
Tourist sector workers are despondent. A hotelier from Palmyra, an ancient caravan city where the gigantic Temple of Bal rises out of the desert, said the site is as vacant as it must have been when it was rediscovered in the 1750s.
“Both my hotels are empty and I was losing money fast. I decided to close them and head to Europe for a few months to wait for the situation to improve,” he said over a cup of cardamom coffee in Damascus, a few hours before his flight left for Bratislava.
“This country is in ruins, and I’m not sure when I’ll be back,” he added.
Others, like souvenir-seller Abu Salah, hope to weather the storm.
“Look at Lebanon. It’s right next door to Syria and they had a war in 2006,” he said excitedly.
“The next year tourists were lying on the beach and dancing in nightclubs.”
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