Idyllic beaches, pristine waters and plush hotels dominate the Syrian regime’s latest wave of promotional videos to reinstate the country’s former role as one of the Middle East’s top tourist spots. There’s just one detail missing: Syria’s civil war.
By using hashtags such as “Syria Always Beautiful”, “Investment Opportunity” and “Syrian Summer Destinations”, Syria’s Ministry of Tourism has gone full throttle in promoting the country’s tourist attractions. This is particularly visible on the ministry’s Facebook page which is filled with enticing videos of Syrian travel destinations – from the sun, sea and fun at the regime-friendly resort town of Lattakia, to the ritz and glitz of Aleppo’s glamorous hotel and restaurant scene. The campaign is part of the government’s 2016 communication strategy to market “the beauty, civilization and history of Syria as a unique tourism destination”. In January, the Bashar al-Assad regime ramped up its tourist-luring efforts even more by also participating in the Fitur International Tourism Trade Fair in Madrid – for the first time since 2011.
But nowhere, not even on the ministry’s homepage, is it mentioned that the country is still in the midst of a civil war that has so far claimed more than 400,000 lives, according to the latest United Nations estimate. It also fails to note the potential dangers that foreign holidaymakers could face by going there, including kidnappings, terrorist attacks and armed conflict.
In a written response to FRANCE 24, a spokesperson representing Syria’s Ministry of Tourism insisted that foreign tourists have absolutely nothing to fear by adding Syria to their bucket lists, aside from perhaps one or two exceptions.
“Be SURE [that] Syria is safe and welcoming [to] her lovers and fans (Damascus, Aleppo, Saidnaya, Maalula, Lattakia, Tartus, Homs, Hama, Kasab, Wadi al-Nasara, Palmyra). They are all enjoying peace, safety and stability, but not Idlib and Raqqa, they are not under government control,” the spokesperson, who signed off as Nuhad, wrote.
Most Western governments, such as the United States, Britain and France, strongly disagree with this statement, however, and have been more than blunt in their travel advisories on Syria, strictly urging their nationals to abstain from any travel to the country at all.
But the Syrian regime doesn’t seem too fazed by these warnings. While attending the tourism fair in Madrid, the Syrian delegation announced that Syria was aiming for as many as two million foreign visits this year. “This year is the time to rebuild Syria and our economy,” Bassam Barsik, the director of marketing at the Syrian Ministry of Tourism, told journalists.
Aside from showcasing Syria’s attractive seaside resorts at the event, the delegation also promoted the cities of Aleppo and Damascus – both heavily marked by the war – as well as what has been left of the ancient Roman ruins of Palmyra that were severely damaged by the Islamic State group, and the bombed-out Krak des Chevaliers crusader castle.
The regime’s push to attract tourists is understandable though. Up until the war broke out, tourism was one of the country’s main sources of income. According to the World Tourism Organization, Syria hosted more than 8.5 million tourists in 2010 alone.
Fouad Hasan, a Syrian journalist who fled his homeland in 2012, said that the image that the government is trying to sell tourists of Syria is far from the truth. He describes the majority of the promotional videos as “delusional and really misleading.”
“It’s regime propaganda. In the beginning [of the war] the government said ‘Syria is fine’, and then it said ‘the war is over’ and now it’s back to saying ‘Syria is fine’ again.”
Hasan, who fled for his life after the regime killed two of his six colleagues, said that although Syria might be a great tourist destination at some point in the future, he would not recommend it as a great travel destination just yet.
“No, I don’t think it’s safe,” he said. “In some regions there is still a big risk of kidnappings, especially in the east. In Damascus, there are still mortar bombings, and the IS group remains a great threat – just recently they turned up in Damascus, but no one knows from where,” he said.
Not easy to get to
But it’s not just the dangers of war that makes Syria a complicated travel destination – it is also somewhat tricky to get to: Aside from the national carrier Syrian Air, few international airlines still operate in the country, and of those that do, the bulk are either Asian or Middle Eastern. Most other carriers have suspended their Syria routes because of the ongoing unrest there. Many western tourists, therefore, choose to fly to neighbouring Lebanon, from where they can travel by car into Syria. Some of them enter into Syria illegally in order to avoid the hassle of obtaining a visa which in most cases requires the written invitation of a Syrian citizen currently living in the country.
Lila Jaoui, who didn’t want to give her real name due to imminent plans to travel into Syria via this illegal route, said that she is well aware of the dangers awaiting her once she crosses over the border from Lebanon.
“I’m going to Aleppo, because I want to discover the market and the city’s gastronomy, but to get there, we have to drive by Idlib. It’s very dangerous,” she said, adding that “the parents of a friend of mine is currently in Aleppo and they told me that just 12 kilometres from there you can hear the war.”
A split among backpackers
Christian, a Norwegian adventure traveller and author of the blog “unusual traveler”, visited Aleppo, Damascus and Homs during a 10-day trip in October 2017. Even though he said the war at times felt both near and real, describing for example the mortar shelling he heard while in Damascus, the near encounter he had with the IS group which attacked the same road he had travelled on just an hour after he had reached his destination, and the bombed out buildings he saw in parts of Aleppo, he said his travel experience left him feeling that the West has grossly exaggerated the overall image of Syria.
“Friends and family told me I had to be insane and that I must have a death wish to want to visit Syria. But in the end Syria was amazing and everything western media write [about it is] a complete lie,” he wrote.
The popular travel guide Lonely Planet, however, has no other advice to its globetrotting readers other than to stay away.
“At the time of writing, Syria was one of the most dangerous places on the planet. To put it simply, you can’t go. And if you can, you shouldn’t.”
“Syria is a war zone,” it concluded, “and peace seems as far away as at any time since war began in 2011.”