Tourism after trauma: Euro travel agencies eye Syrian sojourns

The destinations are exotic and appealing: Markets bristling with charming handicrafts, architecturally stunning houses of worship, ancient castles and striking landscapes. The only problem is they’re all in Syria, a country still reeling from more than a decade of brutal civil war.
Tourism after trauma: Euro travel agencies eye Syrian sojourns

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According to some European travel agencies though, that doesn’t matter. “Biblical cities, ancient cultures and mouth-watering delicacies,” boasts the Berlin-based Soviet Tours, a company best known for travel in the former Soviet bloc that is offering trips to Syria in 2022. “After years of being ravaged by civil war, Syria is slowly starting to return to a level of normality not seen in years,” explained another Berlin-based company, Rocky Road Travel, on its website. 
Of the Syria tours Rocky Road is pitching for next year, one is booked out already and more are being added “due to demand,” the company’s founder, Shane Horan, told DW. “People are definitely curious and they are clearly ready to see the country for themselves … regardless of headlines and rhetoric.” Tourist visas for Syria have been available for group travel since 2018, and a number of Chinese and Russian tour operators previously advertised trips there. Now China’s Young Pioneer Tours, best known for taking visitors to North Korea, is also booking trips into Syria for early 2022. Part of the reason for the current flurry of enthusiasm is the fact that, after a pandemic-related break of around 18 months, the Syrian government began issuing tourist visas again in early October. 
The agencies all stress they do not go near areas where there may still be fighting. Most of the companies offering Syrian tourism are best described as bespoke, adventure travel operators. Often their list of destinations also includes places like North Korea, Somalia, Yemen, Pakistan and Afghanistan. Unsurprisingly, groups like the Washington-based Syria Justice and Accountability Centre (SJAC) beg to differ. In a July 2021 update, they argued that the Syrian government, led by dictator Bashar Assad, is using the renewed push for tourism to do two things. Firstly, the Syrian government wants to bring foreign currency into the country. They need this to trade with the rest of the world, but it is now mostly blocked by international sanctions. “Since it is impossible for tourists to exchange their money for Syrian pounds outside of the country, the government can count on travellers to ferry money into the country,” the SJAC wrote. So the danger is that tourism is “effectively funding Assad’s military campaigns, including against civilians.” 
Tourism is also a valuable source of income. Before the civil war started in 2011, it made up as much as 10% of Syria’s gross domestic product. According to World Bank statistics for 2010, the country had over 10 million visitors and international tourism worth about $6.3 billion. 
Syrian officials began recording visitor numbers again in 2016. These have more than doubled in three years, going from around 1.04 million in 2016 to 2.42 million in 2019. It’s hard to know how many of these visitors were Europeans, although it’s clear the proportion isn’t high. Even if each tour by the aforementioned agencies sells out and has between eight and 20 people per trip next year, for example, this wouldn’t amount to more than about 400 people for all of 2022. 
Secondly, the SJAC wrote, the Syrian government is also using tourism to try and rehabilitate its international image. International human rights organisations regularly condemn the Syrian government for bombing hospitals and schools, as well as the torture of hundreds of prisoners, starvation sieges of whole towns and the diversion of humanitarian aid. But tourists won’t see any of that. 
This article was provided by Deutsche Welle 

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