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02/06/2011 Share/Save/Bookmark
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A tourist in Old Damascus
A tourist in Old Damascus

A sad state of affairs

( Laurent Williams | DP-News Executive Magazine )

It’s a balmy September Friday evening in Damascus. Even at the tail end of the summer tourism season, visitors stream through the Old City souks. Bars, some only recently opened or newly renovated, are packed and crowds have gathered to enjoy weekly live music performances at parks across the city.

Fast-forward seven months and violence and unrest in the country has left Syria’s highly-touted tourism venues empty and the industry in tatters.

Having earned a place on the New York Times Top 10 destinations list in 2010, Syria had invested heavily in tourism promotion to bridge other domestic funding and investment shortfalls. Even in January, as unrest gripped regional neighbors Egypt and Tunisia, Syrian Tourism Minister Saadallah Agha al-Qalaa told reporters an additional 83 hotels would be built in 2011; the move was encouraged by optimistic reports from the ministry of a 40 percent rise in tourist numbers in 2010, from 6.09 million to 8.5 million, which the ministry said generated more than $8 billion in revenue, accounted for 12 percent of gross domestic product, and supplied nearly 800,000 jobs — some 11 percent of the total workforce.

Sources told Executive last year of plans to improve the capacity of the Old City in preparation for an anticipated increase from 18,000 visitors to 30,000 each week — in other words as many visitors as there are residents living in the ancient walled city.

But by March, as protests spread across the country and the death toll at the hands of Syrian security forces grew, the picture looked ever more bleak. Tourists have become a rare sight, even in Damascus, which was still relatively unscathed as of the end of May, with embassies from Australia, United States, Canada, the United Kingdom and throughout Europe issuing travel advisories against all but essential travel to Syria.

While Syria’s tourism industry had been growing, the unrest will only compound pre-existing shortcomings it had already been struggling with; the World Economic Forum Travel and Tourism Competitiveness Report 2011, released in March, saw Syria slide in terms of tourism sector competitiveness rankings, from 85th out of 139 countries two years ago, to 105th, with the data for the report collected before the outbreak of the ‘Arab Spring’.

Work on a number of new hotels had already stalled, with only one large-scale hotel opening in the last five years as a result of a lack of financing or bureaucratic delays, according to economic news website The Syria Report in March; that one opening was the $130 million Yasmeen Rotana in Damascus, opened by Bena Properties, a subsidiary of Cham Holdings whose shareholders include Rami Makhlouf.

Dreams of summer blown away
Damascus favorites, including the Four Seasons Hotel, are reporting low occupancy rates at the beginning of what had been a highly anticipated summer season.

“It is business as usual for us, but yes, occupancy is low,” said the head of the hotel’s communications, Naram Omran. “We have a few tourists who still enjoy walking the Old City and visiting the sites,” she said, adding that while the hotel’s biggest market was from the Middle East, the downturn in international guests was largely attributed to the issue of travel warnings. Others were more pessimistic.

Blaming international “propaganda” against Syria, Antoune Mezannar, owner and manager of Beit Mamlouka and Dar Mamlouka — two highly popular boutique hotels in Damascus — said: “The travel warnings and negative press have been have been a disaster for us.”

“We used to be fully booked from March through May — now we do not have one room taken.”

With no tourists to cater for, Mezannar has been forced to lay off staff. “I have had to cut staff to reduce my expenses,” he said adding he planned to meet with the tourism ministry this month to address the crisis, with other hotel owners.

Elsewhere, travel agents report falls of up to 40 percent on bookings to Syria. Fadi Saflo, owner and manager of Syria-based tourism agency, Shamra Travel and Tourism, said the fall had been significant. “There are definitely many more cancellations than last year,” he said.

Saflo said these affected both group bookings and individuals, from Europe and the Gulf, adding that many were choosing Turkey or Asia as an alternative destination. Still, he said he remained optimistic that the industry would bounce back.

The tourism blight also seems to be spreading to neighboring countries, with travel agents and economists saying the unrest was affecting tourism in Lebanon, as well as Jordan and Egypt, as most international visitors choose regional tours. “We are seeing a lot of those people cancel altogether,” said one agent on condition of anonymity, citing commercial interests.

Economist Louis Hobeika told Executive that the tourism sector, which accounts for between 8 and 10 percent of Lebanon’s economy, would be impacted as a direct result of unrest in neighboring countries. Already the number of visitors to Lebanon in the first three months is down 13 percent on last year.

“It is very rare that people come just to see Lebanon. They like to travel around the region,” he said. “We are closely intertwined with Syria’s economy.”

Hobeika added that the number of tourists crossing the border now is “practically nil.”

On the streets of Damascus, businesses are starting to feel the pinch. Once busy bars are empty, with many closing on Fridays, as customers are reluctant to venture on to the streets during days when protests are likely. Moreover, the lucrative Arabic student client base, flush with cash and free time, has dropped off, as foreign universities and language schools close their exchange programs and evacuate students.

“The mood is very strange. Business is definitely down and there are not a lot of tourists coming anymore because most of them have left,” said one bar owner in Damascus, who did not wish to be named. “It’s mostly just locals but they don’t spend as much.”

Prices at bars and restaurants have risen by between 15 and 50 percent in some cases, as businesses try to make ends meet.

“I had to raise the prices, because the tourists aren’t coming,” said another bar manager. “But now people are buying their alcohol and food to eat at home; they are not coming to the bars or the streets.” Another textiles retailer based in the Old City said: “Tourists are my whole livelihood… I am considering changing my business.”

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