WITH plans to introduce a new infrastructure to encourage investment beyond Damascus, Aleppo, and the Syrian Coast and a new drive to introduce international standards at historic sites, Syria is set to position itself as a major international tourist destination.
Although no figures were announced yet, the tourism industry in Syria is expected to contribute 12 per cent to the country’s gross domestic product (GDP) in 2010, according to the country’s Tourism Minister Saadallah Agha Al-Qalaa.
The industry already accounts for 23 per cent of Syria’s hard currency earnings and provides 13 per cent of its jobs, he stated.
He said tourist arrivals had reached one million in the first four months over the same 2009 period.
‘Of course we had some difficulties to provide the appropriate hotel capacity,’ he told Reuters in an interview.
International tourism earned Syria $5.2 billion in 2009, plus $1.5 billion from domestic tourism, 12 per cent more than the previous year, despite a global recession which saw worldwide tourism receipts shrink four per cent, Qalaa added.
Syria has fuelled the tourism boom by removing visa requirements on visitors from Turkey and Iran as well as the exceptional efforts made by the Tourism Ministry to promote Syria, suitable promotional campaigns for different markets. Westerners too are rediscovering Syria. European tourists are drawn by archaeological treasures such as the desert ruins of Palmyra or the old cities of Aleppo and Damascus, spruced up in recent years and now boasting dozens of boutique hotels and restaurants in restored courtyard houses.
New hotels are being built too, to cope with tourist numbers rising roughly 15 per cent a year in the past decade. ‘We still have a real challenge, with bottlenecks in high season, mainly in Damascus,’ said Qalaa.
He said tourist projects under construction were worth $6.3 billion, compared to those in service worth $4.4 billion, but it would take time to complete them and train staff properly.
Syria now has only 52,000 beds in two- to five-star hotels and received six million tourists last year, although these included 3.5 million Arabs and a million Syrian expatriates, many of whom rent apartments or stay with relatives.
With oil resources dwindling and the effects of a severe 2008-09 drought still lingering, Syria certainly needs a healthy contribution from tourism if it is to meet its target of five per cent GDP growth in each of the next five years.
One challenge is to diversify tourist development so that benefits are spread across Syria and not concentrated only in the best-known attractions, Qalaa said, listing new growth areas such as eco-tourism, health tourism and conferences.
Syria features in the ‘Top 10 value destinations for 2011’ according to Lonely Planet.
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