Europeans return to Syria, fueling tourism and attracting criticism

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BEIRUT — Standing high on the castle-like walls of Aleppo’s historic citadel, Nick White was shocked by the destruction to the city. The 63-year-old British tourist could see how large parts had been flattened by Syria’s terrible civil war.

The ancient Citadel of Aleppo has never been breached, his guide said, pointing to the thin slits and openings along the walls where 800 years ago arrows were shot and boiling oil was poured on the Crusader invaders. In 2013, they became sniper positions.

The medieval fortification is surrounded by a deep moat and steep walls, with the sole entrance through an aged stone bridge resting atop high columns. The protection it offered inhabitants centuries ago was revived in 2013, when government forces holed up there for three years, fending off the rebels in the city below, fueled by the belief that he who controls the citadel controls the front lines.

After years of conflict, tourists are returning to a changed Syria. This summer, locals and tour operators are reporting an uptick in visitors from Western countries. Authorities restarted issuing visas in October for curious foreigners to see for themselves the country whose conflict once dominated television screens and flooded Europe with refugees.

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Now, as the echoes of war die down in Syria — despite several still active front lines — and travelers are returning, detractors demand visitors consider how much they are supporting a government known for its oppressiveness and brutality.

Criticism of such trips has mounted abroad, particularly in 2019 following a brief revival of Western tourism and the ensuing flood of videos and blogs by travel influencers. Anger flared among Syrians residing abroad, many of whom had been displaced by the war and cannot return home themselves.

Syria had resumed granting tourist visas in 2018 in hopes of pulling in some much needed revenue, before the pandemic put an end to that.

The Syria Justice and Accountability Centre, a Washington-based nonprofit, said last summer that while tourism can help locals in Syria, “mass promotion without nuance or understanding is irresponsible at best and potentially fatal” for those still living under “a government involved in systemic human rights abuses.”

White, like many of his fellow travelers, knows the criticism tours such as his face and everyone in his group wondered if this is “effectively supporting the Assad regime.”

“But no, we were supporting the Syrian economy,” he said. “We’re supporting the people on the street, trying to bring some money into the economy.”

The tours typically cost around $1,700 per person for a week-long trip which includes stops in Damascus, Aleppo, Palmyra with its unparalleled Roman-era ruins, and the Crusader fort of Krak Des Chevaliers — considered one of the finest examples of medieval military architecture in the region.

Where they don’t go is to the northwest, where former al-Qaeda affiliates, Turkish-backed rebels, Syrian soldiers and Russian mercenaries nervously eye each other amid talk of a new Turkish invasion. Out of sight are also the areas to the east where Iranian militants roam free and U.S.-backed Kurdish forces are still hunting the remnants of the Islamic State.

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All outside tourism agencies are required to work with local companies registered with Syria’s Ministry of Tourism, that are responsible for handling visa applications and coordinating security clearances, accommodation and transportation.

While U.S. passport-holders are almost always rejected, those from Europe are increasingly allowed in and residents in Damascus and other cities report seeing much larger numbers of tourists distinct from the usual Iranian pilgrims, Russian mercenaries and Chinese visitors.

Tour leaders interviewed for this article all said they are not accompanied by government minders, who are typically assigned to supervise and restrict the movement of foreign visitors.

There is one exception: an unarmed member of the Syrian army escorts every group through Palmyra, desert city of the fabled Queen Zenobia who took on the Roman Empire in the 3rd century. The man is typically a lieutenant who had been directly involved in the battles to liberate the city from the Islamic State, which conquered the area twice, in 2015 and in 2017, and destroyed some of the historic ruins.

“Really hearing the modern history,” White said, “with ISIS and the things that they got up to, seeing the ruins in Palmyra that they had blown up and knocked down, and hearing that they executed people on the stage, in the auditorium we were sitting in, it was really,” he paused, “poignant.”

The officer describes the battles, points to the damage, answers questions. “But then he gives a little bit of an ideological speech,” said one tour leader, painting “the Syrian army as national heroes.”

To give as balanced a trip as possible, this particular tour leader makes sure his tours include another stop, where they meet a member of the Free Syrian Army, a loose band of factions and fighters created in the wake of the revolts that spread throughout the country in 2011.

Made up at first largely of defected soldiers and officers, they fought government troops across the country, labeling areas “liberated Syria,” before collapsing from infighting and other factors, amid the rise of more radical Islamist groups.

The tour leader, who asked to stay anonymous for security reasons because he still works in Syria, makes sure his groups hear here a different version of history where the Syrian army “started slaughtering and burning down houses, along with Hezbollah.”

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James Willcox, the founder of Britain-based travel agency Untamed Borders, said tourists resuming their visits to the country give Syrians a sense that some things, at least, are slowly going back to normal. “After a decade of conflict, normalization is good,” he said in a phone interview. “It’s a really positive sign, it’s one of those symbols of better times ahead.”

The resumption of Western tourism in Syria does present a lifeline for hotels, restaurants and small business owners, especially those in and around old cities in Damascus and Aleppo who for generations have been catering to adventurous foreigners.

But they are not the only ones to gain financially: individuals and groups close to the government naturally stand to benefit as well. According to local reports, the U.S.-sanctioned Katerji Group, run by two brothers who accrued their wealth on the back of the war, already has plans underway to turn Aleppo’s old military hospital into a five-star hotel complex — profiting from one of the most vicious sieges of the war that saw whole neighborhoods leveled by Russian-backed artillery.

Attempts to clear the rubble and rebuild in the city are underway, but a war-torn economy, sanctions, and the steep depreciation of the Syrian pound have sunk the country into a financial crisis that will prolong any reconstruction.

White said he visited Syria in April with the Spanish-based agency, Against the Compass, “because it is just a place that not a lot of people have been to, and I just wanted to see for myself.”

Visible from the citadel, whose walls were partially collapsed by a bomb in 2015, is the destruction of Aleppo’s famous covered markets, once a must-see on the tourist trail but now destroyed by fighting in between the rebels and government in 2012. “Heart-wrenching,” said White.

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