July 19, 2005

Foreign tourists flock to Syria despite troubles

By Suleiman al-Khalidi

DAMASCUS (Reuters) - Strolling in the narrow lanes of the
oldest inhabited city in the world, American tourist David
Kummer says he feels safer in its old souks than on the streets
of New York.

"It's safer than New York here but Americans are fearful of
Arabs, they think they are all terrorists. Most of it is
prejudice but I wasn't scared," said Kummer, 55, a teacher at a
college in Valhalla, New York, in the shady courtyard of an old
Damascus home.

Kummer is one of thousands of Western travelers alongside
Arabs and Iranians -- the mainstay of Syria's tourist arrivals
-- now coming in greater numbers to Syria despite an image of a
nation caught up in regional conflict.

The United States has described Damascus as a state sponsor
of terrorism. Washington has urged Syria to seal its borders
with Iraq because it says Islamist militants are crossing the
frontier to fight U.S. forces.

Syria dominated Lebanon for three decades, but withdrew its
forces from its smaller neighbor in April under intense
international pressure following the assassination of Lebanese
former Prime Minister Rafik al-Hariri in February.

Despite this, Western tourists travel across a country that
boasts one of the world's oldest capitals, Christian and Muslim
shrines and traces of civilization dating back 12,000 years.

"The strongest impact is word of mouth by Europeans who
come here and are amazed at what they see and tell others.
That's what's bringing them to Syria, not the bad news," said
Sharif al-Ferm of travel agency Dawn Tours.

Syria's Tourism Ministry says its figures show a 55 percent
rise in package tours of Western tourists coming from mainland
Europe in the first five months of 2005 compared to last year.

Westerners, including Americans, now get visas on arrival,
a move travel agents and airline executives say has boosted

Syria's authorities say the prospects are bright for the
future and that they are finally succeeding in promoting their
country as a safe destination despite what they say is
politically inspired publicity that unfairly scares foreigners.

"We are reaching out to markets ... to send a message that
Syria is secure and the tourism industry is developed and
attractive," Tourism Minister Saadallah Agha al-Qalaa told


The 24-story Four Seasons Hotel which towers over the
center of Damascus is by far the biggest investment to upgrade
five-star hotels in a city that still suffers a critical
shortage of quality accommodation.

Tourism revenues are expected to rise to $2.8 billion in
2005 from $2.2 billion last year. More than 3 million tourists
came in 2004 and that number should increase by at least
600,000 this year.

"The recent tourism investments have allowed us to recover
the number of tourists in 2004. We couldn't have recovered
these figures without this push," said Agha al-Qalaa.

Syria hopes to develop tourism as a pillar of its economy.
It is attracting more tourists from neighboring Mediterranean
countries such as Cyprus, Greece and Turkey who come for
bargain shopping while Iranians come to visit Shi'ite shrines.

Arab Gulf tourists, who are avoiding neighboring Beirut
after a spate of bombings, are coming to the relative stability
of Damascus.

Officials say there are 35,000 to 40,000 hotel rooms across
the country and another 10,000 are under construction by
investors, including international hotel chains such as the

Another 6,000 hotel beds worth a total $500 million in
investments are at the planning stage, they added.


But while foreign tour operators are showing greater
interest and more requests for hotel bookings, their local
counterparts say the political climate is still the main hurdle
to the country gaining a bigger share of the regional market.

"We have to suffer a lot more to persuade them how much
Syria was a safe location and to put it in their programs while
the other states don't do any promotion and get the tourists,"
said Yoland Chamas, co-owner of Orient Aroma Tours.

"No one is scaring the tourists away from their country
like what's happening to us in Syria," she added.

The trickle of Westerners, mainly Germans and French and
increasingly more Spaniards and Scandinavians, were a fraction
of what Syria could attract with regional peace, industry
executives say.

They say prospects of a resumption of the Middle East peace
process could change the fortunes of the country's tourism

"If there was peace between us and our neighbors in the
region there would be more tourism because the whole area is an
ancient living museum and Syria is the jewel," said Yousef
Kassis, a tourist handicrafts seller.

"Damascus is the oldest inhabited city. There is no one who
would not wish he or she would one day visit this crossroads of
civilizations," Kassis said.

"But politics always spoils a holiday season," he added.