Western tourists have yet to discover Syria

By Brooke Anderson
DAMASCUS — With some of the best-preserved ancient ruins in the Middle East, one of the lowest crime rates in the world, some of the lowest prices in the region, and a unique and deeply rooted tradition of hospitality, Syria has all the potential to be a prime tourist destination.
Yet Syria continues to be one of the least visited countries in the region, particularly by Westerners.
Travel writer Scott C. Davis, author of The Road from Damascus: a journey through Syria, describes the country as a “hidden treasure.” In Syria, he says, “there are entire Greek and Roman cities that you can see without seeing a single tourist.”
According to the Oxford Business Group’s 2003 report, Syria experienced an increase a approximately 1 million visitors between the years 2000 and 2002 (from about 3.5 million to 4.5 million), despite the intifada and the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. However, less than half these visitors were from outside the region, and their numbers sharply decreased to a couple hundred thousand in 2002.

Middle Eastern tourism to Syria, particularly from the Gulf, increased after Sept. 11 because many wealthy Arab tourists felt unwelcome in Western destinations.

In addition to Gulf Arabs, Syria remains a popular destination for Muslims,particularly Shiites, who come to visit religious shrines and landmarks and Syrian expatriates, many of whom return to their homeland for extended periods often a month or more.

Hoping to build on the growing market of religious tourists, the Syrian Tourism Ministry has been coordinating with Malaysia’s ministry to arrange charter flights between the two countries. Malaysia, whose tourism industry is much more developed than Syria’s, wishes to cater to its market of Middle East tourists. Syria hopes to draw Malaysia’s Muslims to Syria’s religious sites.

As for expatriates, Syria hopes to expand on an already successful market.
“Expatriates usually stay much longer than other tourists,” points out Faisal Najati, director of tourist activities at the Tourism Ministry in Damascus. “Our research has found that an expatriate who stays a month spends much more than a Westerner who stays a week.”

Najati acknowledges that many Syrian expatriates on vacation in their home country end up staying with relatives, eating at home and paying the Syrian rate (approximately 5 percent that of foreign tourists) to visit ruins. No doubt, this is not the kind of tourism Syria originally had in mind when, just a year ago, it was talking about boosting the economy.

However, Najati thinks that the children and grandchildren of expatriates would be interested in visiting Syria. He predicts that many will stay at hotels, and those who have been away from their homeland for a couple of generations and who do not necessarily hold Syrian citizenship would pay foreign fees (usually $3) to visit cultural sites.

Najati hopes that Westerners will then hear about what a wonderful tourist destination Syria is by word of mouth from their Syrian friends.

While the Tourism Ministry may be onto something, in practical terms, their plans may be difficult to manifest.

First, obtaining a visa to Syria is an expensive and lengthy process. Prices range up to $100, depending on nationality, and can take up to two weeks to process.

Some Syrian-Americans (without Syrian citizenship) who wish to visit the country may face practical problems in obtaining a visa. Detroit and Los Angeles, two of the US top cities for Syrian-Americans to reside, do not have consulates. The embassy in Washington and the consulate in New York City both of which are over an hour by plane from Detroit and over five hours from Los Angeles  are the only two places in the US to obtain a Syrian visa.

Syria recently passed a law in which anyone who books a tour through a travel agent can get his visa at the border free of charge upon arrival. This may help middle-aged Western tourists who are visiting Syria for the first time. However, this does not cater to the current tourist market expatriates, return visitors and religious pilgrims, savvy tourists who are more likely to travel to Syria independently.

With a semi-booming Arab and Muslim market, it is necessary for Syria to ensure that the increased number of visitors after Sept. 11 continues even if visa restrictions to Western countries ease in the near future.

For visitors from the Gulf, this means building more shopping centers and luxury accommodations. For religious tourists, it is essential to step up coordination with other countries with high Muslim populations.

For Syrian expatriates and others from outside the region who may soon follow suit a reduction in the time and cost of obtaining a visa is a must, as well as opening up high-quality budget accommodation and cash machines in the country.

Development in Syria though badly needed in order for it to compete in the tourism market will have to be done sensitively. For the few Westerners who do venture to Syria are often relieved to find a place that still has authentic charm and has not been Westernized.

“Syria is the one country with such a depth of history that has not been remade into the mold of travel destinations all over the world,” says Davis.

“It is the one place that still has character.”

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