Does Syria need luxury hotels as tourism declines?

The opening ceremony of the Golden Mazzeh hotel in Damascus - 11 October 2022 (Golden Mazzeh)

The opening ceremony of the Golden Mazzeh hotel in Damascus - 11 October 2022 (Golden Mazzeh)

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Enab Baladi – Jana al-Issa

The longing of the Syrian regime to encourage tourism investment in its areas of control has been clear to the public in recent months after years of repeated propaganda about “the return of tourism to Syria in its best forms.”

Although the official figures issued by the Ministry of Tourism for the number of tourists are still “below expectations,” since the beginning of this year, several areas under the regime’s control have witnessed the launch of a number of tourism projects, including four five-star luxury hotels, and a number of touristic facilities in coastal cities of Tartus and Latakia and others.

Madian Diab, director general of the Investment Authority, attributed the regime’s government’s interest in encouraging and supporting tourism investment to its “role in the production process, considering that tourism investments are the fastest growing and returning.

Diab’s statement, which was reported by the Russian Sputnik agency on 16 October, came on the sidelines of a tourism investment conference held by the regime’s government in Damascus for two days in the middle of this month, in the official presence and participation of a number of Arab and foreign companies, businessmen and investors, in which it was presented over 70 tourism projects for investment.

Companies and projects

Several tourism investment projects and new companies established with a tourist aim were announced after the end of the conference.

On 24 October, the local Athr Press news website reported, citing unnamed sources, that the Ministry of Internal Trade and Consumer Protection issued a decision to officially approve the establishment of two new companies to invest in tourism and hotel projects.

The sources added that the ministry approved the establishment of the Dama Rose company, which is owned by the Ministry of Tourism, with the aim of “establishing and investing in hotels and tourist complexes and providing related services, and it has the right to own, rent and invest real estate and means of transportation necessary to achieve its goal.”

It also ratified the establishment of the al-Asayel Royal company, owned by three Syrian investors, with the aim of “establishing, implementing, owning, investing and renting hotels and tourist facilities in all their forms and classifications, and importing and exporting hotel and restaurant supplies.”

After the conference ended, the regime’s Prime Minister, Hussein Arnous, laid the foundation stone for two investment projects and two tourist facilities in the capital with an estimated cost of 195 billion Syrian pounds.

Arnous said, according to what was reported by the state-run news agency (SANA), that the investors of the two projects are “Syrian citizens who have decided to stay in the country and contribute to the reconstruction.”

Money and political propaganda

Dr. Joseph Daher, associate professor at the European University Institute in Florence, Italy, told Enab Baladi that the Syrian regime’s government is moving towards the tourism sector, including religious tourism, to open and earn new sources of income on the one hand, and to promote politically on the other.

Daher, who is also a participant in the “Wartime and Post-Conflict in Syria” project, explained that foreign and Arab tourists when visiting Syria, are charged fees in US dollars in Syrian hotels, which makes state-owned hotels an important source of foreign currency, with its dwindling reserves of foreign exchange, and in the midst of a severe economic crisis.

“Foreigners and Syrians who travel to Syria also benefit from tourist sites such as hotels and restaurants and enhance local consumption with their high purchasing power,” Daher said, adding that the development of tourism could also attract future foreign investments, especially from the Gulf States as before 2011, considering that, however, “this type of investment is still limited.”

Daher stressed that the tourism sector in Syria before 2011 was among the fastest-developing economic sectors, as the number of foreign visitors recorded its highest numbers in 2010, with about 9.45 million visitors to Syria, and the sector was then the second largest source of foreign currency after oil exports.

In 2010, foreign exchange revenues amounted to about 3.9 billion USD, and the revenues of the tourism sector in Syria were estimated at 8.21 billion USD (about 386 billion SYP, according to the exchange rate of the dollar against the pound at the time), equivalent to 13.7% of GDP of the war-torn country.

In addition to funds, the regime’s government is currently using the tourism sector and encouraging investment in it to strengthen relations with regional and foreign actors, and as a propaganda tool for further normalization with it, according to Dr. Daher.

It was the first official visit by the regime’s government to Saudi Arabia, for example, in 2021, “with a tourist cover,” since the diplomatic relations were severed between them after 2011.

At that time, Muhammad Rami Martini, minister of tourism, was invited by the Saudi ministry of tourism and the world tourism organization to attend the 47th meeting of the world tourism organization committee for the middle east.

Tourism revenues “discouraging”

On 13 October, Martini revealed that his government was waiting for an “unprecedented” tourist season, considering that the number of tourists for this year was “good, but less than expected.”

The tourism minister told the local Hashtag website that the number of tourists coming to Syria in the past eight months exceeded one million, adding that the ministry is counting on the new tourist facilities and the tourism investment conference to improve the tourism reality.

The minister had previously stated at the end of 2021 that the ministry had adopted a plan for the next ten years to develop the tourism sector, especially popular tourism, expecting at the time that 2022 would be a “better tourism year than previous years.”

Such expectations, which did not happen, raise questions about the reasons for investors’ turnout on tourism investment in light of the “discouraging” tourism reality, experts say.

For his part, the academic and economic expert Joseph Daher believes that the tourism sector is attractive to investors because they do not need high investments (there is no need for important infrastructure), and in return, they are generally able to obtain a quick return on profits.

Daher added to Enab Baladi that investments in the tourism sector, as well as in real estate and construction, are compatible with commercial capitalism and speculation that is dominant in the region, including Syria, and are characterized by short-term profit goals.

The opening ceremony of the Golden Mazzeh hotel in Damascus - 11 October 2022 (Golden Mazzeh)

The opening ceremony of the Golden Mazzeh hotel in Damascus – 11 October 2022 (Golden Mazzeh)

Tourism is propaganda

During the last tourism investment conference in Damascus, al-Baath newspaper, the mouthpiece of the ruling party, criticized, in a report, the regime’s tendency to support the tourism sector and consider it a priority, in addition to pumping and expanding tourism projects at a time when important facilities are closed, and other facilities are suspended while waiting for fuel and energy to operate.

Al-Baath said, during its coverage of the conference, that “at a time when the throats of industrialists, investors, and craftsmen sought their most basic rights, we found unprecedented comfort in our meetings with investors during the tourism investment conference, as most of them expressed the quick response to their demands and the ease of the import of the requirements of their five-star facilities.”

Economic analyst Amer Shahda told the newspaper that today’s focus should be on finding solutions to the economic and social situation, while tourism is “just a detail.”

Despite the importance of the tourism sector, its realization of resources and job opportunities, and its economic repercussions, there are priorities and ingredients for the success of the tourism conference, he added.

The most important of which is the stability of citizens by addressing their economic problems, as collective stability encourages tourism. But securing a residence for a foreigner (tourist) in the absence of housing for the displaced is “a fantasy and just propaganda,” as he described it.

No recovery before 2030

The regime’s Tourism Ministry estimated the losses of the tourism sector since the beginning of the war to be 330 billion Syrian pounds, according to a report published on 10 October 2021 by the state-run al-Wehda newspaper.

The newspaper quoted Qassem Darwish, planning director at the ministry, as saying that the ministry’s estimates indicate that the remarkable rise of this sector will not be before 2030, adding that “until that date, the Syrian economy will continue to record more losses annually from the tourism sector.”

 

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