Prolonged unrest is keeping tourists away.
Only last year, Damascus ranked seventh on the New York Times list of top destinations. Since political unrest began in mid-March, however, the alleys of Old Damascus – one of the main tourist attractions in Syria – have emptied. Tourism and small businesses are suffering. Shop owners who used to be busy all day selling goods are now sitting in front of their shops, drinking tea and hoping for customers to pass by.
Syria was previously known as a country with beautiful ruins, a green coast and rich cultural traditions. News of tanks entering major cities and thousands of refugees crossing into Turkey has now fostered the perception of Syria as a country of violence and war.
The US and EU countries have issued travel warnings against visiting Syria and international insurance firms have cancelled coverage for travellers. Together, this has caused a significant dip in tourism, Rami Martini, chairman of the Syria Federation of Tourism Chambers said in an interview with Al-Khabar, a local Arabic-language business weekly.
Most airlines flying to Europe have reduced their flights due to lowered demand. In June BMI rolled back its daily service from Damascus to London Heathrow to just four flights a week. Other airlines to have reduced their services include Austrian, Germania, Malév and Turkish; while Cyprus and Lot have cancelled all flights.
As a result, the businesses of hoteliers like Somar Hazim, owner of Beit Rose Hotel in Old Damascus, have been badly hit. According to Hazim, occupancy at his hotel decreased from 90 percent last year to 5 to 10 percent this year, forcing him and other hotel owners to reduce staff. According to Al-Khabar, occupancy rates in Aleppo are close to zero.
“As demand is decreasing, competition is growing and prices are going down. A room that I used to rent out for SYP 5,700 (USD 120) is rented now for about SYP 3,100 (USD 65),” Hazim said. “Our only guests are foreigners who study or work here and their relatives who come to visit.”
The absence of tourists has also affected small businesses, such as the antique shop owned by Nasser Ideen al-Shahrour in Sarouja near Old Damascus. Shahrour said he sometimes goes 15 days without a sale.
“I cannot guarantee anything now. I buy a gram of silver today with SYP 50 (USD 1) and tomorrow the price might be SYP 55 (USD 1.1),” he said. “This means I can’t have fixed prices and this is affecting demand which is already badly decreasing.”
Syria’s reputation for safety and its improving marketing strategies boosted the country’s tourism industry during the last two years. Annual tourist revenues totalled SYP 389bn (USD 8.2bn) last year, or about 13 percent of GDP. With dwindling oil revenues, tourism was a crucial foreign currency earner for Syria. While the expected total revenue from tourism in March, April and May was predicted by the Federation of the Syrian Chambers of Tourism to be SYP 23.8bn (USD 500m), the chamber said that income was 30 percent lower than expected in March and has decreased significantly more in recent months.
In its 11th Five-Year Plan, the Syrian government set the goal of attracting 5.1m more tourists a year by 2015; the current annual total is 9m tourists – including travellers transiting through the country.
Lamia Aasi, Minister of Tourism, said during a recent meeting of tourism professionals in Aleppo that there has been a “very sharp” decline in the number of tourists entering Syria. She said that, in May, tourism numbers were 32 percent compared to this time last year, because virtually no European tourists are visiting the country now. Aasi argued it was a “strategic error” to depend so heavily on business from European tourists, with the European market too subject to the changes of global politics. In contrast, she claimed, Asian markets are “only affected by natural circumstances or economic crises”.
She added: “Our long-term strategy is to target Asian markets such as China, Malaysia, Philippines, Russia and Iran which did not suffer a decrease in the number of religious tourists coming to Syria.”
According to Bassam Barsique, director of marketing and development at the ministry, domestic tourism, which makes up 22 percent of total revenue, was unaffected by the crisis. Some major tourism investment deals were unaffected, too. In an interview with Arabian Business, Jumeirah Group, a UAE hotel management firm, said that despite the political uncertainty in Syria, it is continuing with a project it started in November last year to manage the 350-room, five-star Jumeirah Syria Towers hotel built by Souria Holding in central Damascus.
The ministry has also completed a study aimed and finding ways to reduce prices to attract more tourists. It is also rescheduling loans for tourism facility owners and is granting them exemptions on payment of interest and fines.
Even if things calm down, Hazim, the hotel owner, is not optimistic about the future. He said he believes that the harm done to the country’s image cannot be easily undone.
“It will be difficult for the tourism sector to recover quickly,” he said. “Tourism is the first sector to be hit, and the last to recover. It is because it is a profession that depends on a place’s reputation.”
I published together with Muhammad Atef Fares in Syria Today magazine.