SYRIA, at the heart of a turbulent Middle East, might seem a tough sell as a holiday destination, but the government sees tourism as a vital growth sector now that oil resources are dwindling.
Indeed, the country’s tourism minister expects tourist revenues to add up to $3 billion in 2007.
Minister of Tourism Saadalla Agha al-Qalaa told media last month that the country is entering a new era of tourist growth and is opening up to Arab and foreign countries. Last year, tourism revenues accounted for $2.87 billion dollars. The government plans to meet this year’s targets by focusing on the tourist product and diversifying related services, he said,
Al-Qalaa told the UAE tourist magazine Asfar that Syria is working to make tourism one of the main elements of national economy, which would create more job opportunities and high revenues, as well as providing means to develop cultural dialogue among nations.
He added that tourist growth has been raised from 8 per cent in the late eighties to 15 per cent nowadays thanks to the development of tourist promotion and participation in regional and international tourism expos.
Regarding tourist investments in Syria, the Minister stated that there are projects under construction with an overall value of $3.4 billion, while the current value of existing restaurants and hotels amounts to $3.6 billion.
Agha also said that Syria needs to invest $7 billion in new tourist projects in Lattakia, Damascus and Palmyra, stating that the government has set aside land for tourist investments from the Gulf with a value of billion dollars. Gulf tourist investments amount to 55 per cent of overall investments in Syria.
With its archaeological treasures, souqs, religious sites and hospitable traditions, Syria has much to offer people interested in culture - and tolerant of service and quality not yet up to the standards of more established tourist industries.
First, however, it must solve an acknowledged image problem associated with instability in Lebanon, Iraq and Palestinian territories. “Syria is an island in a troubled region,” the minister told Reuters in an interview last month. “So visitors need someone who has been here to tell them it is safe and stable.”
Tourists can get visas easily and travel freely around the country. The United States advises its citizens to defer travel to Syria, following an attack by militants on the US embassy in Damascus in September. Britain counsels vigilance.
But the atmosphere is relaxed and welcoming. In the ancient bazaars in Aleppo or Damascus, traders are quick to offer foreigners a glass of tea - and a look at their wares.
The few luxury hotels in big cities have high occupancy rates and private investors, mostly from the Gulf, plan projects worth $3.4 billion to meet anticipated demand from tourists whose numbers are growing at 15 per cent a year, Al-Qalaa said.
“It’s very difficult to get a room in Damascus or Aleppo, or on the coast in the season,” he said. “In 2008 or 2009 we should get out of the bottleneck of hotel beds.” By 2010, current projects, which benefit from generous tax breaks, will add 30,000 beds to the 45,000 Syria has now.
Ministry figures show 3.1 million people – excluding Iraqi refugees and Lebanese fleeing a war between Israel and Hezbollah guerrillas – visited Syria in 2006, versus 1.7 million in 2000, the year President Bashar Al Assad came to power aged 34.
Al-Qalaa said tourism now accounts for seven per cent of gross domestic product, targeted to rise to nine per cent by 2010. Energy, the biggest sector in the economy, makes up about 28 per cent.
With Syria expected to become a net oil importer as early as next year, tourism cannot immediately match the hard currency earnings generated by oil exports for the past 15 years.
Economist Nabeel Sukkar said no sector was yet ready to take up the slack. “Agriculture, manufacturing, tourism are all promising, but they all need restructuring,” he said.
“The most work has been done in tourism, which brings foreign exchange but is vulnerable politically,” Sukkar said, citing the impact on Egypt of a 1997 attack by Islamist militants who killed 58 foreigners at a temple in Luxor.
Al-Qalaa said ministry surveys showed that 77 per cent of tourists had come to Syria because of word-of-mouth recommendations, rather than any organised marketing effort.
Now a more systematic promotion campaign is under way. The ministry’s marketing budget rose to $5.5 million this year from just $1.5 million in 2006. It is seeking $10 million in 2008.
Roadshows this year are targeting major European countries, Russia, China and India, as well as the Gulf states and Muslim countries such as Turkey and Iran, Al-Qalaa said.
Mass tourism is not the objective, partly because Syria has only a short coastline with relatively unappealing beaches.
“We want tourists who will understand Syria and have new experiences, not those who can spend two weeks here on a beach without knowing where they are,” he concluded.
by Clark Kelley
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