Concern over rise in dark tourism in Syria as war enters ninth year
DAMASCUS: Syria’s almost nine-year conflict is far from over but that is not stopping a new wave of western tourists from visiting.
As President Bashar al-Assad tightens his grip on the remains of the opposition in the north-west, a handful of tour companies and travel bloggers catering to English-language customers have started running bespoke trips to the country to “mingle with locals while also passing destroyed villages”, visit archeological sites “shrouded in a coat of destruction” and “experience the famous cosmopolitan nightlife that has returned to the centre of Damascus”.
At least 500,000 people have been killed in the war and more than half Syria’s pre-war population of 22 million people have fled their homes.
As Assad has slowly regained control, the perception in some quarters is that the country is once again open for business – including the once-lucrative tourism sector.
Travel to Syria is advised against by almost every government in the world on safety grounds, and Syrians who have paid a high price in the war urge westerners not to normalise relations with the regime.
Yet despite the occasional car bomb, Israeli airstrikes and secret police who “disappear” suspected spies and opposition members into Assad’s prisons, Damascus is now relatively safe, and hardcore adventure tourist interest in a country that has been off limits for nearly a decade is growing.
Visiting places associated with death and tragedy is generally referred to as dark tourism. Holidaying in countries still technically at war, however, is a relatively new phenomenon, fuelled by social media influencers on a quest to conquer forbidden destinations or tick off all 195 countries in the world.
Week-long tours mostly take in the Old City of Damascus and Krak des Chevaliers, an 11th-century Crusader castle near Homs, as well as Roman Palmyra in the eastern desert, which has been hit by Islamic State sleeper cell attacks since the militants were driven out of the area in 2017.
Motorcyclists from Syria, Lebanon, and Jordan take part in a ride to encourage tourism through the town of Saidnaya, north of Syria’s capital Damascus, in September.
At least one offering, from the China-based Young Pioneer Tours, ventures as far north as Aleppo, which was wrested back from the Syrian opposition in 2016 after a four-year battle. More than half the city is still in ruins.
The Young Pioneer Tours trip costs $1,695 (£1,320), not including flights, visa fees and travel insurance. Groups are accompanied by government minders. The company has been approached for comment.
As of this month, similar trips are being offered by two Russian travel companies.
Johnny Ward, an Irish travel blogger, met a small group of tourists in Beirut and took them over Lebanon’s land border for a five-day trip last week that included Damascus and Krak des Chevaliers.
“If we only travel to countries that have a clean domestic and foreign policy, where can we go? Do people criticise trips to Vegas, Beijing or the Trans-Siberian railway? How many lives have been impacted by those countries’ domestic and foreign policies? I truly believe grassroots tourism sends dollars back to the people who need them,” he said.
“In our tiny way, tourism is a small step back to normalcy for Damascus and beyond … to visit a country doesn’t endorse their leadership.”
Attempts to reopen Syria for tourism have been met with fierce criticism from some Syrians, however.
Bakri al-Obeid ran a small tourism company in Damascus before Syria’s uprising began in 2011. He left his hometown of Aleppo when the city fell three years ago and now lives in Idlib, which is pounded daily by Syrian and Russian airstrikes.
“What the tourism companies are doing now has just one goal: normalisation with the regime. They are doing this to show the world that Syria is safe and fine and the war is over,” he said.
“(These trips) whitewash the regime and let the world forget the atrocities committed against Syrians. It’s really depressing and painful to see tourists coming to your country from overseas when your house is confiscated by the regime and you can never go back home.”