US sanctions virtually ground Syrian Air


International tourism to Syria may be burgeoning, but getting there is increasingly difficult due to U.S. sanctions that have essentially grounded Syria’s national airline.

Syria’s popularity as a travel destination has been steadily rising. Recently listed by New York Times’ Don Duncan as the seventh hottest place to visit in 2010, tourism is bringing an injection of new revenue into the country’s hotel and transport system.

“Tourism in Syria has been increasing every year, and hotel investments, especially in Damascus, Aleppo and Palmyra, increased very quickly,” Ibrahim Karkoutli, Managing Director of Abinos Travel and Tourism agency in Damascus, told The Media Line. “According to UNESCO [United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization] Statistics, Syria is considered number one in the world for archeological sites with over 10,000 sites, making Syria the biggest open air museum in the world.”

But despite the growth, analysts say the country’s national airline has been left behind due to American sanctions banning the purchase of new airplanes and spare parts.

Former U.S. President George W. Bush branded Syria as a member of the “axis of evil” in 2002 together with Iran and North Korea.

“American punishments of Syria prevents Syrian Air from acquiring new aircrafts or spare parts. So the flights are always full and overbooked,” Karkoutli said. “Syrian Air is the favorite [airline] for tourists coming to Syria, for its rates and direct flights. [But] we faced a lot of difficulties with Syrian Air due to having to cancel some European destinations because the fleet is not [big] enough.”

The Syrian national carrier has only three airplanes in working condition.

Some Syrians have started to say ‘enough’, launching a Pro Syrian Air campaign to try reverse the sanctions.

“The goal of the group and the website Pro Syrian Air is to support our national carrier, which is under the sanctions of the U.S.,” Yassin Al Tayyan, a regional manager for Syrian Air and one of the founders of the new initiative told The Media Line. “We do feel that this is unfair; the safety of the air travel business is always number one. Implanting the sanctions on any civil airline in the world means indirectly [placing] sanctions on the travelers.”

“We aim to call all who are engaged in this matter to draw their attention,” Al Tayyan said. “We don’t agree with these sanctions… Buying spare parts for civilian aircraft should not be banned by sanction.”

Aviation expert Christian Lambertus said Syrian Air faced other problems.

“Syrian Air is a state carrier and they are not yet aiming on being profitable,” he told The Media Line. “They rely heavily on being subsidized by the state.”

“I can’t really indentify a strategy on what they want to do – if they want to serve just the Middle East market or [whether] there are any ambitions to grow worldwide,” Lambertus said, adding that Syrian Air is not a member of any major airline alliance, which dominate today’s market.