Syria’s beach resorts were busy this summer.
“Last year and this year our hotel was full in the summer time”, said Rami Ibrahim, from the Holiday Beach resort hotel near Tartous. “Our guests prefer our hotel because it’s new and secure and the beach very clean and well served.”
The Holiday Beach Resort near Tartous in a photo posted on Facebook this August. Syria’s Mediterranean Coast has attracted tourists despite the fighting Photo: Holiday Beach Resort/Facebook
The hazy languor of Syria’s Mediterranean coastline was a draw for families inside the war-torn country, among those attempting some respite from the conditions that have caused almost four million people to flee overseas.
Business will continue at Mr Ibrahim’s hotel throughout the winter, with the hotel offering “special parties” for Christmas and other religious holidays. He expects a high number of bookings over the Christian festive season and new year.
“Last year and this year our hotel was full in the summer time. Our guests prefer our hotel because it’s new and secure and the beach very clean and well served.”
Rami Ibrahim, Holiday Beach resort, Syria
Tourism sits uneasily in a country shattered by despair and destruction – and over which British politicians voted to launch air strikes this week. Just 50km up the coast from the Holiday Beach resort is Russia’s Syrian airbase, and neighbouring Lattakia province has seen brutal clashes between government troops and rebels.
A picture posted on Facebook from the Holiday Beach Resort near Tartous this September. Management expect good business over Christmas (Holiday Beach Resort/Facebook) Photo: Holiday Beach Resort /Facebook
And yet tourism activity – both by nationals and foreign visitors – exists still in Syria. A new airline, Fly Damas, was this week due to start services between Damascus and cities in the Middle East including Baghdad, Beirut and Amman. A tour operator in the Syrian capital told Telegraph Travel that he had welcomed several groups of European tourists this year, who would have visited against the travel advice of their governments.
The British Foreign Office strongly advises against all travel to Syria (Foreign & Commonwealth Office)
“By advertising tourism whilst the country is at war, Assad is trying to portray himself as a statesman who is running his country as normal.”
Wael Aleji, Syrian Network for Human Rights
The developments suggest the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad is increasing attempts to promote the country overseas and to use leisure activities to corral the local population. Their efforts come even as the British Foreign Office warns that its citizens in the country should “leave now” from the “extremely volatile and dangerous” situation. “There is widespread fighting throughout Syria, including in Damascus and its suburbs. Full scale military operations involving the use of small arms, tanks, artillery and aircraft are ongoing”, its advice adds.
Before the conflict, in 205: a posted of Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad hung over of one Syria’s mian tourist attractions, the archaeological site at Bosra Photo: Getty
While David Cameron has described the Syrian president as having “butchered his own people” – the Syrian government appears to be attempting to foster an image of civility through tourism.
The Syrian Arab News Agency (SANA) – the government mouth piece – reported in October that ministries are to send “promotional items” overseas to bolster the tourism industry and, “facilitate tourism promotion activities abroad.”
Tourists swam off the beaches at Latakia this summer, on Syria’s Mediterranean coast (Getty) Photo: Getty
The Tourism Ministry is also planning a new app – “Mobile Syria” – including “a promotional tourism map” that promises to lead users to tourist sites and facilities “like restaurants, hotels, theme parks” in the country.
Tourist offices are also being revamped, with a decree from Bishr Yazigi, Syria’s Tourism Minister, ordering staff to start, “development of tourist sites and advertising them across all media.
Tourist offices are also being revamped, with a decree from Bishr Yazigi, Syria’s Tourism Minister, ordering staff to start the “development of tourist sites and advertising them across all media” as well as “organising activities to stimulate tourism.” The ministry has also launched a new tourism campaign, “I Belong”, to corral support among Syrians.
SANA’s Twitter account also frequently links to posters advertising parties and DJ nights: it advertised a series of Hallowe’en parties in the capital, which is still under government control.
“#Syria Event Calendar brings you all this weekend’s #Halloween parties in #Damascus #HappyHalloween #halloween2015” , the message read.
#Syria Event Calendar brings you all this weekend’s #Halloween parties in #Damascus #HappyHalloween #halloween2015 pic.twitter.com/1P1KXOoHZU
— SANA English (@SANA_English)
31 Octobre 2015
Wael Aleji, from the Syrian Network for Human Rights, said that the Assad regime’s tourism initiatives were part of its “psychological warfare” against opponents, attempting to appear a legitimate government.
He said: “By advertising tourism while the country is at war, Assad is trying to portray himself as a statesman who is running his country as normal. He is trying to create a contrast in the minds of people in the West: the opposition-held areas are infested by terrorism, while regime-held areas are being run by a professional and legitimate government which is trying to promote tourism and public interests whilst fighting terrorism.”
Ayman Abdlenour, a political and media opponent of Mr Assad who has lived in exile in the UAE and Canada since 2007, said that the government “was trying to pretend things are OK – as a sort of facade.
“Mr Assad is using all his cards – culture and tourism sites – to gain the west’s sympathies and to send messages to his supporters that he is still powerful.”
#Syria: New airline #FlyDamas launches this Sunday services between #Damascus, #Qamishli, #Baghdad, #Najaf & #Beirut pic.twitter.com/nJwXssjijf
— SANA English (@SANA_English)
26 Novembre 2015
Flydamas is understood to have this week launched flights between Damascus and seven cities in the Middle East. A notice on its Facebook page from November 25 said it was starting services between Syria, Beirut in Lebanon, Amman in Jordan and Jeddah and Riyadh in Saudi Arabia from November 29, but its website is still “under construction”. The EU and the US have trade embargoes in place that stop trade with Syrian companies.
Beirut and Amman airport officials, and Flydamas, did not respond to requests to confirm if the services were operating.
The Syrian airline Cham Wings this autumn also started flights between Muscat in Oman and Damascus, adding to routes from Khartoum, Kuwait, Baghdad and Dubai to the Syrian capital.
“In April I had a group of 33 French people on an eight-day tour. Two weeks ago I had a group of several nationalities, and three French people last week. I organise tours for all people who like Syria”
Mahmoud Arnaout, Syrian tour operator
European visitors, meanwhile, have already made their way to Syria this year.
Mahmoud Arnaout, a tour operator owner from Damascus, said he had welcomed three groups this year.
“I have been working in tourism for 20 years and I am doing all I can to say to people, ‘come to Syria,'” he told Telegraph Travel. “In April I had a group of 33 French people on an eight-day tour.”
He said the party visited Damascus, Maaloula, Krak des Chevaliers – the Unesco-listed crusader castle that has sustained damage in the war, Tartous, Latakia and Saidnaya, the home of an important pilgrimage site and Greek Orthodox monastery – but a place that also gives its name to one of the most notorious prisons in the country.
The Monastery of Saidnaya was visited by European tourists to Syria this year Photo: Getty
“I organise tours for all people who like Syria”, Mr Arnaout said. “Two weeks ago I had a group of several nationalities, and three French people last week. These are people who like Syria, the Syrian people, the Syrian government, and who are against Daesh [Isil], Nosra [Jabhat al-Nusra, the al-Qaeda affiliated group in Syria], and everything that represents terrorism.”
Both the British and French governments strongly advise against all travel to Syria.
The Crusader castle Crac des Chevaliers was one of Syria’s tourism highlights before the war (Alamy) Photo: Alamy
• Unesco World Heritage sites under threat 2015
Elsewhere in Syria, a new resort is opening its doors. Just five miles from the bombed-out suburbs of the city of Homs sits the Villa Rosa hotel. Ten miles from rebel lines, the pool and public areas are open. Its Facebook profile shows smiling guests at check in, and smart, modern rooms.
Villa Rosa Hotel opened this summer near the city of Homs (Villa Rosa Hotel/Facebook) Photo: Facebook/Villa Rosa Hotel
• Destruction of Middle Eastern heritage is cultural genocide
• Aleppo’s heritage sites destroyed
Five years prior to the uprisings against Bashar al-Assad that disintegrated into a long, bloody conflict, travellers had been taking an increasing interest in Syria’s ancient sites and atmospheric cities. Hugh Fraser, director of Corinthian Travel, said the country’s tourism industry had been “booming”.
“Greater awareness, press articles, glossy magazine articles and boutique hotel openings combined to significantly raise Syria’s profile and transform it into a destination that many cultural travellers placed very high up on their bucket list,” he said. His company – which quickly established itself as one of the best reputed tour operators for Syria – took clients whose feedback was “almost universally positive”, and demand began to outweigh supply: “Obtaining availability and good guides during peak season was increasingly a problem. Corinthian had to turn business down as on occasion there were simply not enough guides to go round.”
The conversion of old houses into boutique hotels in pre-war Syria had meant European tourists were visiting in increasing numbers. Many have now been destroyed
Now, though, it is mainly Syrians making use of leisure facilities as a momentary escape from the desperation of the current situation.
Diana Darke, an expert on Syria and author of My House in Damascus: An Insider’s View on the Syrian Revolution, said the government’s “carry on regardless” approach had been consistent since the beginning of the conflict in 2011, but that it was important to see things from the perspective of Syrians trying to keep the economy going: “In Damascus last November I visited friends from the Ministry of Tourism who are still going into their offices, trying to do their jobs”, she said.
“Even though it seems absurd to us, it’s important to realise it looks very different from inside Syria. A lot of jobs are at stake.”
She said that there was a lot of internal tourism within Syria, still, with families going on holiday to Lattakia, Syria’s main port city, and neighbouring Tartous, both on the Mediterranean coast.
“My lawyer took his family from Damascus to Lattakia in July for a seaside break. The beaches are very busy – it’s a world away from the fighting.”
The Minister of Tourism met with delegations from France and the Czech Republic last month
Delegations from the Czech Republic and France visited Damascus last month for meetings with Mr Yazigi – just as peace talks take place in Europe, and politicians debate whether the Assad government will play a role in Syria’s future at all.
A spokesperson from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Czech Republic said it envisaged that an “exchange of good practices in the field of tourism”. “Czech Republic can offer experience in the field of tourism, renovation of historical buildings and museums and reconstruction of destroyed monuments. However, main part of the responsibility lies in the hands of Syrian leadership and Syrian people in general.”
The Syrian Ministry of Information, Ministry of Tourism, and the French parliament did not respond to requests for comment.