Americans join the crowds on the road to Damascus
The country's capital city Damascus may very well be the oldest continuously populated city in the world. At least it lays claim to that title.
By pushing tourism, the Syrian government celebrates the country’s past while trying to improve its present, not just economically but politically.
“One looks at tourism in this strategy as a human dialogue among people and civilizations, contributing to highlighting the civilized image of Syria," said Minister of Tourism, Dr. Saadallah Agha Alqalah.
The Administration of Barack Obama has gone a great way to reach out to Syria, and the United States has plans to send an Ambassador back to Damascus soon, which is seen as a significant move. The post has been vacant since the last ambassador was withdrawn in 2005 after the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri — a murder that remains unsolved — but in which the U.N. Special Tribunal initially suspected the hand of Damascus.
Syria has always denied those allegations and the investigation is ongoing. Syria remains on the U.S. list of countries that sponsor terrorism, because of its support of Hamas and Hezbollah, which Syria considers legitimate resistance groups. And the U.S. has economic sanctions against Syria.
The Syrians are positive about Obama’s approach, but say they want to see concrete actions when it comes to rapprochement between the two countries. Against that backdrop of a certain political mistrust, I was curious to find out if Americans might be among the tourists flocking to discover the mysteries of Syria these days.
The Syrian Ministry of Tourism recently invited journalists from around the world in to view Syria’s treasures, and having long been interested in Syria, we jumped at the opportunity.
Syria is home to the ancient black basalt town of Bosra, with probably the best preserved Roman theater in existence. The city of Ebla was an important Bronze Age settlement, and today a major excavation site, a place that thrived somewhere around 2,400 years before the birth of Christ. There's also the capital of Damascus, the Chapel of St. Ananias, who cured St. Paul of his blindness and initiated his conversion to Christianity, there are the dramatic Crusader castles, and so much more. The country is rich in history and in legend.
Tourism is up — 24 percent more Europeans visited this year. Though the bulk of the tourists to Syria are other Arabs, followed by Europeans, it turns out American tourists are among those on the road to Damascus these days.
The procedure for getting a tourist visa to Syria is straightforward. You fill out an application, send your passport to the Embassy, pay about $130, and get the visa in as little as a working day. The passport cannot have an Israeli stamp in it. There are no direct flights from the U.S. to Syria, so travelers must go via Europe or other countries in the Middle East.
At the ruins of Palmyra, which was at one point a colony of Rome until its beautiful headstrong Queen Zenobia threw off the Roman yoke, I met famed director Francis Ford Coppola. By the way, Palmyra, with its pinkish sandstone ruins that stretch endlessly across the desert, would make a phenomenal movie set. Coppola had been to a few film festivals in the region and told me he had always wanted to visit Syria, so he took the opportunity to come, he said, just as a tourist.
But not any tourist. The red carpet was rolled out for the film legend, who had a private dinner with Syria’s first couple, Bashar and Asma al-Assad. He waxed positive about the country.
“We have felt so warmly received. The people you meet are kind and welcoming. The city (Damascus) is fascinating for so many reasons, relating to history. The food is fantastic. The President, his wife and family are lucid, appealing and able to speak on so many levels. In this way he convinces me he has a vision for the country which is positive.”
President Bashar Assad took over the presidency after his father died in 2000. Assad, who did some of his training as an opthalmologist in London, had initially launched some political reforms, but then backed off a bit. More recently he has focused on economic reforms.
Syria’s economy is in fact opening up — it recently opened a stock exchange and has an energetic Deputy Prime Minister, Abdallah Dardari, in charge of economy. He is endlessly studying economic models around the world to figure out the best way to move Syria forward.
The average per capita income is about $2,700. And by promoting tourism and trying to draw visitors to sites all across the country, the government hopes to give an economic boost to all regions.
“We are looking for prosperity for our people, prosperity not just in Damascus but all over the country. It’s also an important way of proving a real energy in tour country toward other people and it helps promote a dialogue with other cultures,” Syria’s Minister of Tourism said.
Tourism has been important for some time now. In 2008 it made the difference in the balance of payments for the country.
Moving through the country I met other Americans, from Minnesota, from California.
In the city of Aleppo, Syria’s second largest city, I met a mother-daughter team in the bar of the fabled Baron Hotel, where the story goes you could once shoot ducks in the swamp from the balconies. More famously, the Baron was where Agatha Christie wrote part of her novel “Murder on the Orient Express.” Baron was quite close to a stop on the route of the famous train. Hotel management is quite happy to show you the bits and pieces of history in the hotel, including the room Christie stayed in, provided it’s not occupied.
The mother and daughter I met at the Baron were from California and said they took a big trip once a year. Often it was to India, which they love. But the daughter told me she was reading a magazine that named Syria one of the 10 most important places to visit in the coming year. She initially thought “No,” but then began reading up, called her mother and said “We’re going.”
A combination of heaps of history and current political developments creates a perfect storm of curiousity and allure for a certain category of American travelers. They join the growing international community of tourists checking out Syria these days.