Syrian regime lures Western tourists to boost its image

The covered market in the old city of Homs- October 2020 (Lens of a young Damascene)

The covered market in the old city of Homs- October 2020 (Lens of a young Damascene)

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Enab Baladi- Zeinab Masri

As soon as Deutsche Welle(DW), a German public state-owned international broadcaster, published a report about some European travel agencies resuming tours to Syria, the Syrian regime scrambled to benefit from this report by promoting tourism in its areas of control. 

On 1 November, the Syrian regime’s Ministry of information released a report titled “Syria returns as a tourist destination to European travel agencies” detailing the DW report. 

In an interview with Sputnik, a Russian state-owned news agency, Tourism Minister Muhammad Rami Martini said that this news is regarded as “an encouragement to boost the economy.”

Martini said some world countries have submitted requests to facilitate tourist flights to Syria. He pointed out that on 30 October 2021, civil servants from the Ministry of Tourism received an Italian tourist group who made a visit to Damascus and Aleppo.

The minister said that the tourist flights to Syria are yet to fully resume due to the preventive measures followed in the country to combat the spread of the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) in coordination between the ministries of tourism, interior and health.

There are no direct flights from Europe to Syria; the international and European airlines have not resumed their flights yet. The planes that land at Syrian airports belong directly to the governments of countries allied to the Syrian regime, such as Iran, Russia, Iraq and the UAE, in addition to planes that belong to Syrian airlines. 

It is noteworthy that  Syrian airlines have been banned from EU skies in the context of the general EU sanctions against Syria. 

Gate of normalization with the Syrian regime

Resuming tours to regime-held areas could be seen as a form of normalization with the Syrian government. Apparently, political relations are dominated by interests. These tours could be the start of restoring ties with the regime because the tourists, who are expected to visit the region, will talk about the places they’ll visit after their return to their home countries,” Bassam al-Ahmad, a Syrian human rights defender and co-founder and executive director of Syrians for Truth and Justice (STJ) told Enab Baladi.  

Al-Ahmad told Enab Baladi that human rights organizations cannot prevent people from travelling to Syria. However, they can shed light on the outcomes of these trips, which remain political by their nature; such tours could boost the image of the Assad regime as the only legitimate host for tourism in Syria. In other words, regional or international powers could restore their ties or normalize their relations with the regime. These trips could bring benefits to corrupt institutions affiliated with the Syrian government or harm certain activities. The regime is attempting to build an adequate support base in the EU countries.

Several countries use tourism as a weapon. For example, if relations between Turkey and Saudi Arabia are good, this will positively impact the tourism sector. The movement of tourists will be active, and the same applies to the rest of the world countries. 

Thus, allowing travel to Syria is definitely a sign of normalization with the Syrian regime, al-Ahmad said.   

 Tourists intending to travel to Syria do not violate the EU sanctions. This is because the EU sanctions, just like the US sanctions, are unilateral and target only specific personalities and figures, al-Ahmad said. However, people dealing with Syrian companies placed on terrorist lists or sanctions lists may be harmed. 

Economic gains

Tourists could adversely affect the Syrian people because of their ability to bring hard currency into Syria and encourage others to do the same. Put another way; the danger is that tourism is “effectively funding Assad’s military campaigns, including against civilians in Idlib and Daraa,” according to a report titled “The “Post-War” Tour: How Tourism is Empowering the Syrian Government.” This report was issued by the Syria Justice and Accountability Centre (SJAC) in July 2021. 

The report also points out, “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. Using US dollars inside the country is currently prohibited, but travellers can conveniently exchange their money for Syrian pounds at the immigration checkpoint upon entry.”

In addition, tourists are supposed to pay for security clearances and entry visas into Syria. Security clearances can only be obtained by booking trips through a state-sanctioned travel agency, which will also mandate being accompanied by a tour guide at all times.

According to the report, “Prices for these clearances are often opaque since tour operators can easily tack on extra fees, but visas alone reportedly cost anywhere from $72 to $160 for Europeans or Americans, respectively.”

Issuing an entry visa to Syria for European passport holders costs about 70 USD, Rocky Road Travel, a Berlin-based company, told Enab Baladi

Tourism can help some locals in Syria. Still, mass promotion without nuance or understanding is irresponsible at best and potentially deadly for many who still live every day in the shadow of violence, poverty and repression, the report indicated. 

What can be done?

The report of the SJAC highlighted that it is not possible to ban travel to Syria completely. Travellers will always find a way to enter Syria. But more must be done to discourage “adventure tourists,” who encourage spending money that supports the Syrian government. 

The measures should include keeping Syria away from forums, such as the International Tourism Fair, which gives the regime a platform to share its propaganda and pressure airlines not to operate flights to the country.

Tourism should only be promoted when a fair peace agreement has been reached, and a dignified and safe return can be ensured for hundreds of thousands of forcibly displaced Syrians.

The report noted the importance of conducting more scrutiny on individuals who promote tourism in Syria; “are these trips devised through their input alone, or are they receiving funding through outside resources, and if so, by whom? Travel influencers also have a responsibility to be cognizant of the societal impact their work has in glamorizing travel to war-torn and dangerous areas, especially when it serves to legitimize a government involved in systematic human rights abuses.”

Fully booked flights

 European travel agencies have announced the resumption of organizing tourist trips to Syria after stopping for nearly a decade even though the United Nations Commission of Inquiry stressed that Syria is seeing a continuous escalation of hostilities and is still not safe for the return of refugees.

According to the report issued by the DW network on 30 October 2021,” 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 report pointed out that most companies that provide Syrian tourism are “best” described as bespoke adventure travel operators. This is because their list of destinations often includes places such as North Korea, Somalia, Yemen, Pakistan and Afghanistan.

Journalists or human rights researchers or Syrians are not allowed to join these trips to Syria. 

These group tours advertised by the travel agencies consist of a nine-day voyage and cost up to nearly 2,000 euros (2,300 USD)—flights not included. 

Rocky Road Travel, a Berlin-based travel company, published on its official website that it organizes private and group trips to Syria for 2021 and 2022, whether a one-day trip to Damascus or a 15-day trip to all of them Syria.

UK-based firm Lupine Travel explained on its website that tourist trips to Syria for the years 2022 and 2023 are fully booked until next May, at the cost of 1,395 euros per trip.

The company attached to the schedule of these trips an announcement stating that the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office ( FCDO ) advises against all travel to Syria. However, the company organizes tours to areas where it feels it can keep its customers safe.

The company also advises its clients to do their own research “to be comfortable with their journey.”

According to the DW report, Clio, a Paris-based business specializing in cultural tours, was probably one of the first European companies to start promoting Syrian trips in 2019, and it also offers tours again for 2022.

The report said that 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.

China’s Young Pioneer Tours, known for taking visitors to North Korea, is also booking trips into Syria in early 2022.

The Syrian government has intensified its propaganda for tourism since its forces managed to recapture large areas from the hands of the opposition factions, especially in the vicinity of the capital, Damascus.

The Ministry of Tourism relies heavily on promoting religious tourism, and the Syrian government is moving towards encouraging this tourism as a factor to support the domestic economy, through promotional plans, especially in countries it considers allies, including Iran and Russia.

 

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