Syria tourism goes full speed

In a bid to revive its tourism industry following the global recession, Syria celebrates the AL MAHABA Festival August 2nd to 12th, to be followed by two other international events, The Silk Road Festival from September 27 – 30 and the Bosra International Festival, held every other year also in the month of September.

Previous to this August merry-making, the Syrian tourism minister however announced marked improvement in tourist arrivals and flourishing resort developments. In fact, the country has witnessed an increase of 3 percent in arrivals in 2003 compared to 2002 (when it registered 2.1 million tourists, 17 percent up from 2001). Participation of the ministry in overseas trade fairs and in human resources training and development programs helped better tourism promotion and marketing. The ministry also developed an internet site featuring important tourist information.

In the recent years, the government has recognized the potential of the travel industry, adopting measures to develop the sector by rescheduling loans for tourist projects under construction through decree no. 29 of July 2003. This declaration did not only expedite the completion of 200 pending projects, it also kicked off ground-breaking for properties owned or managed by international chains. Hotel inventory totals 36,000 beds, to increase to 170,000 in the next fifteen years. The department of civil aviation is working on improving facilities and enlarging carrier capacity. More licenses are given out to the tourism sector, especially in management contracts.

Tourism Minister Dr. Saad Allah Agha Al Qalaa said after the council has enacted the issuance of several regulations and policies for growth, his vision turned to serious consideration of the industry as an economic builder, managing tourism as an activity with financial and social returns that generate job opportunities for millions in addition to creating dialogues between cultures and regions. “Tourism should not be marketed as a mere sightseeing activity but a means to get to know the people and the entire nation through the medium of dialogue; attention to the archaeological sites that need development as well as preservation and maintenance of all historical heritage; a need to develop the role of the private sector with whom we are in partnership and mapping out a framework free of competition,” the minister said.

With its rich cultural heritage and geographical diversity, Syria has a lot to offer ranging from Mediterranean beaches to its panoramic landscape – its mountains, fertile valleys, plains and steppes. Its historical and archeological heritage speaks volumes. Over 3000 archeological sites and 35 different civilizations constitute its ancient history from the Sumerian, Amorite and Byzantine, to the Gassanid, Islamic and Ottoman. There are many summer resorts like Zabadani, Bludan, Bukein, Ayn al Fijeh, Ma’alula, Seydnaya, Ma’aret Seydnaya – all offering great climate, fresh air and 0local produce. In winter, visitors enjoy snow scenery all over these mentioned resorts.

Dr. Al Qalaa has restructured the tourism framework around the country to cope with the challenges after 9/11 and the Iraq war. “Competition within a holistic system is truly attractive within certain bounds – for instance, by not making the tourist feel that he’s been cheated. Vendors should not rip-off tourists, quoting them high prices to make up, on the short term, for losses. We need to assess all packages are cost-effective, certainly those in which taxes can be minimized or rebates applied. We need to review and regulate rates without eliminating other factors of the industry,” he said.

The minister has attended to the private sector, giving them a more active role in the trade. He said there is a unified tax system that is attractive to the private enterprise and foreign investment groups. “Incentives include tax exemptions on all tourist projects, exemptions on all imports necessary to furnish tourism establishments—provided imports do not exceed 50 percent of total investment, and a seven-year corporate tax exemption from the date of operation, after which a 50 percent off the standard rate applies.”

According to him, tax reform should be a function of the government, as the facilitator and promoter of dialogues between parties involved in the business. The Syrian Tourist Chamber, established last year, develops the private sector role in tourism. “I am pleased that the recent initial congregation was attended by 1000 enthusiastic and positive-thinking members,” Minister Al Qalaa said.

International hotels are granted import licenses for luxury goods traditionally not allowed into Syria. Hence recently, Syria opened its doors to the Four Seasons Hotel in Damascus, the Afamia Resort in Latakia, the Antaradus Complex in Tartus, the Assad Lake Tourist Complex, to name but a few. Local banks usually contribute 60% to projects, and foreigners can now own land. Said al Qalaa, “Aside from just bringing in capital, the private sector should invest in the training and education of human resources; enhance the quality of tourism product and control fair pricing while striking a balance thereof. Investors must take an active role in protecting and restoring the state’s valuable resources (for instance, Syria is itself a big museum of more than 20 civilisations’ ruins, Aleppo is a sequence of civilizations). Sites should be revived through grand festivals.”

“Governments must follow-up on a strategy to coordinate work between regional authorities, as well as, the need for suitable issues on financing and marketing. Governments ideally should cover 90 percent of the total marketing for a destination. It must set a suitable framework for sustainability, for promotion of services and information.” Trained staff from the ministry of tourism has been assigned at airports and border checkpoints. In mid-2003, the government allowed tourist groups booking through travel agents to be issued entry visas upon arrival at Syrian airports or borders.

He reported a big group of reporters, around 200, covered last year’s Silk Road Festival. He announced he was interested in more coverage this year.

“We have added more attractions in and around archaeological sites. Programs on cultural, religious, Islamic route tourism have made Syria achieve a 7.5 percent rise compared to the same period last year,” the minister closed.

author: Hazel Heyer

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