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Syria hopes for return of European tourists

Minister says arrival numbers are rising again after period of relative calm following decade of civil war

Syrian Tourism Minister Mohammed Rami Martini speaks during a press conference  in Damascus on November 24,  2021 (LOUAI BESHARA / AFP)
Syrian Tourism Minister Mohammed Rami Martini speaks during a press conference in Damascus on November 24, 2021 (LOUAI BESHARA / AFP)

DAMASCUS, Syria — Visitor numbers to Syria are growing again after a collapse caused by a decade of war, the tourism minister said Wednesday, adding he hoped for a return of European tour operators next year.

“We are expecting 2022 to be better than previous years,” Tourism Minister Mohammed Martini told a press conference in Damascus announcing a 10-year plan to revive the sector.

The number of arrivals to Syria so far this year stands at 488,000, in what he said was already an annual increase, although he did not provide last year’s figures.

He also said that the income generated by state-owned hotels had increased fivefold over the past year.

Martini did not specify the origin of the latest arrivals, but Syria is an important destination for Shiite pilgrims and has continued to welcome visitors from Iran, Iraq and Lebanon during the conflict.

President Bashar Assad’s regime is a pariah in the West, and foreign sanctions have drastically reduced its economic ties with the rest of the world.

Syrian boys transport coal as they work at a makeshift oil refinery near the Turkish-controlled northern city of al-Bab, on November 20, 2021 (Bakr ALKASEM / AFP)

Martini, himself a hotel and tour operator owner under EU sanctions since 2019, said Syrian tourism players were touring European fairs to push for “a return of cultural tourism.”

He said his ministry had already received “dozens of requests from European tour operators” interested in organizing trips to Syria, which used to be a popular destination before deadly conflict erupted in 2011.

This aerial view shows the Bardaqli camp for displaced people in the town of Dana in Syria’s northwestern Idlib province, on November 20, 2021. (AAREF WATAD / AFP)

“I am not saying that the numbers will go back up” to pre-2011 levels, “but they are going to grow,” he told AFP.

At least two European tour operators, one based in the United Kingdom and the other in Germany, have already advertised trips to Syria for 2022.

Syria is home to several UNESCO world heritage sites that were very popular with tourists before the war, such as Palmyra and the Krak des Chevaliers crusader castle.

Syrian President Bashar Assad, right, waves for his supporters at a polling station during the Presidential elections in the town of Douma, in the eastern Ghouta region, near the Syrian capital Damascus, Syria, Wednesday, May 26, 2021 (AP Photo/Hassan Ammar, File)

Most sites were damaged by more than 10 years of a conflict that has killed nearly half a million people, but restoration work was undertaken and the minister insisted all major attractions were now safe.

Fighting in the country has receded since the beginning of last year, but Syria’s economy is on its knees and the regime is seeking to claw itself out of international isolation.

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