Europeans return to Syria, boost tourism and provoke criticism

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

Aleppo’s ancient citadel has never been breached, his guide said, pointing to the thin crevices and openings along the walls where arrows were fired and boiling oil poured on the Crusaders 800 years ago. In 2013, they became sniper positions.

The medieval fortress is surrounded by a deep moat and steep walls, with the only entrance via an old stone bridge resting on high columns. The protection it afforded its inhabitants centuries ago was revived in 2013, when government forces holed up there for three years to fend off the rebels in the city below, fueled by the belief that he who controls the citadel is on the front lines. checks.

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

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As the echoes of the war in Syria fade – despite several front lines still active – and travelers return, opponents are demanding visitors think about how much they support a government known for its oppression and brutality.

Criticism of such travel has increased abroad, especially in 2019 after a brief revival of Western tourism and the subsequent flood of videos and blogs by travel influencers. Anger flared among Syrians living abroad, many of whom had been displaced by the war and unable to return home themselves.

Syria had resumed issuing tourist visas in 2018 in hopes of bringing in some much-needed revenue before the pandemic put an end to that.

The Syria Justice and Accountability Center, 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 alive. under “a government involved in systematic human rights abuses.”

White, like many of his fellow travelers, knows the critiques like his face, and everyone in his group wondered if this “effectively supports the Assad regime.”

“But no, we supported the Syrian economy,” he said. “We support the people on the streets and try to bring some money into the economy.”

The tours typically cost around $1,700 per person for a week-long journey with stops in Damascus, Aleppo, Palmyra (with its unrivaled Roman-era ruins) and the Crusader fortress 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 look nervously at each other as they talk about another Turkish invasion. Also out of sight are areas to the east where Iranian militants roam freely and US-backed Kurdish forces are still hunting the remnants of Islamic State.

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All external tourism agencies must work with local companies registered with the Syrian Ministry of Tourism, which are responsible for handling visa applications and coordinating security clearances, accommodation and transportation.

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

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

There is one exception: An unarmed member of the Syrian army escorts each group through Palmyra, the desert city of the legendary Queen Zenobia who conquered the Roman Empire in the 3rd century. The man is typically a lieutenant who was directly involved in the fighting to liberate the city from the Islamic State, which captured the area twice, in 2015 and 2017, destroying some of its historic ruins.

“Really hear modern history,” White said, “with ISIS and the things they’ve been up to, see the ruins in Palmyra that they blew up and brought down, and hear they executed people on the stage, in the auditorium we sat in, it was real,” he paused, “gripping.”

The officer describes the fighting, points out the damage, answers questions. “But then he gives a bit of an ideological speech,” said one tour guide, while “painting the Syrian army as national heroes.”

To give as balanced a journey as possible, this particular tour leader makes sure that his travels include one more stop, where they meet a member of the Free Syrian Army, a loose group of factions and fighters created in the aftermath of the uprisings that spread all over the world. country in 2011.

Initially made up largely of defected soldiers and officers, they fought government forces across the country, labeling areas as “liberated Syria,” before falling to infighting and other factors amid the rise of more radical Islamist forces. groups.

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

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James Willcox, the founder of UK-based travel agency Untamed Borders, said tourists resuming visits to the country are making Syrians feel that at least some things are slowly returning to normal. “After a decade of conflict, normalization is good,” he said in a telephone interview. “It’s a very positive sign, it’s one of those symbols of better times ahead.”

The resumption of Western tourism in Syria is a lifeline for hotels, restaurants and small business owners, especially those in and around old towns in Damascus and Aleppo, which have been serving adventurous foreigners for generations.

But they are not the only ones who benefit financially: of course individuals and groups close to the government also benefit. According to local reports, the US-sanctioned Katerji Group, run by two brothers who amassed their wealth during the war, is already planning to convert Aleppo’s old military hospital into a five-star hotel complex — taking advantage of one of the country’s most vicious sieges. war in which entire neighborhoods were destroyed by Russian-backed artillery.

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

White said he visited Syria in April with Spain-based agency Against the Compass, “because it’s just a place that not many people have been to, and I just wanted to see it 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 between the rebels and the government in 2012. “Heart-wrenching,” White said.

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