Destination: Syria

War-Torn Syria Courts Tourists. Really!

Destruction in the Bab Dreeb area of Homs, Syria (2012). via Wikipedia

Six sites in Syria are listed as World Heritage sites and 12 more have been nominated. The World Heritage Foundation lists Damascus as “the oldest capital of the world” and “the cradle of historical civilizations.” Descriptions of Syria’s other cultural wonders are equally lofty—Palmyra has been settled since prehistory, the minarets in Bosra are the oldest in the world. Little wonder travelers want to visit Syria. It’s a cultural crossroads rich in history, home to a spectacular array of archeological wonders. But there’s one minor issue with visiting the country: For about three years now, Syria has been in the grip of a devastating civil war.

This is no deterrent to the Syrian Ministry of Tourism (sorry, no link, their site sets off a virus warning). It launched a new campaign designed to convince travelers that Syria is a safe destination. The New Republic points out how Syria’s tourist sites have been affected by the conflict. For example:

In Homs, site of that fabled “prosperous tourist season,” Jabhat al-Nusra continues to carry out bombings that have left dozens dead. In Hama, the regime is encouraging tourism while it is allegedly using chemical weapons, especially chlorine gas

Homs was under siege by Bashar al-Assad’s government for nearly three years, The New Republic posits that a tourism campaign to the region is more about showing who’s in control than about improving the country’s devastated economy.

And this story on Fox describes the issues one might encounter when making a hotel reservation:

No one denies that logistics are difficult for holiday-makers. Hotel reservations, for example, can be iffy. The other day a band of foreign jihadists blew up Aleppo’s Carleton Citadel Hotel, drastically reducing the supply of five star accommodations in Syria’s fabled second city.

Difficult logistics indeed. The campaign overlooks the tragedy of nearly 10 million displaced Syrians. The cost of war on Syria’s precious historical sites is heartbreaking, but the toll on human lives is incalculable.

More than a decade ago, I was invited to tag along on a friend’s visit to Syria and I hesitated, nervous about my nationality, my gender, my religious upbringing. “Propaganda,” insisted my friend, “you’ll be fine.” The pro-tourism campaign is propaganda, too, of a very different kind. I prefer the other flavor. I might have needed a head scarf to show respect, but a flak jacket? Not so much so.

I deeply regret not going while I had the chance.

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“Damascus is a city of which we—or certainly I—have barely a notion, so obscured is it by ignorance and Syria’s unwholesome image,” Tim Jepson writes at the beginning of this essay from the Telegraph. By the end of the story, though, Jepson discovers the many pleasures of the Syrian capital—and convinces me of them, too.

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Damascus Becomes Haven for Westerners Learning Arabic

American and European students who love the cheap tuition for Arabic classes and the purity of the dialect (it’s close to classical Arabic) have been going to Syria’s capital for years. But in the latest report on the trend, NPR notes that the community of young language students from the West are also stepping out of the usual expat and study-abroad bubble. Looks like they’re at least taking time to discover a complex, restless and intriguing country often reduced to caricature as a member of an extended Axis of Evil.

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