Europeans return to Syria, fueling tourism and attracting criticism

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

Aleppo’s ancient citadel has never been breached, its guide says, pointing to the thin slits and other openings along the walls where, 800 years ago, defenders fired arrows and poured oil boiling over the crusading invaders. In 2013, these openings became sniper positions.

The medieval fortification is surrounded by deep moats and steep walls, with the only entrance via a stone bridge resting on tall columns. The protection afforded by the citadel centuries ago was restored in 2013, when government forces locked themselves in it for three years, repelling rebels in the city below, fueled by the belief that whoever controls the citadel controls the front lines.

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 resumed issuing visas in October to allow curious foreigners to see for themselves the country whose conflict once dominated TV screens and flooded Europe with refugees.

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Now, as the echoes of war die down in Syria – despite several frontlines still active – and travelers return, critics demand that visitors reflect on how their travels support a government known for its oppression and its brutality.

Criticism of these trips has grown overseas, particularly in 2019 following a brief revival in Western tourism and the ensuing flood of videos and blogs from travel influencers. followed. Anger has flared among Syrians residing abroad, many of whom have been displaced by the war and cannot return home on their own.

Syria had resumed granting tourist visas in 2018 in hopes of earning much-needed revenue, before the pandemic put an end to it.

The Syria Justice and Accountability Center, a Washington-based nonprofit, said last summer that while tourism can help the people of Syria, “mass promotion without nuance or understanding is at best irresponsible and potentially deadly” for those still living under “a government implicated in systemic human rights abuses.

White, like many of his traveling companions, knows the criticism that faces him, and everyone in his group wonders if it is “effectively supporting the Assad regime”.

“But no, we were supporting the Syrian economy,” he said. “We are supporting people on the streets, trying to inject money into the economy.”

Tours typically cost around $1,700 per person for a week-long trip that includes stops in Damascus, Aleppo, Palmyra (with its unprecedented Roman ruins) and the crusader fort of Krak des Chevaliers – considered one of finest examples of the medieval army. architecture of the region.

Where they’re not going is to the northwest, where former al-Qaeda affiliates, Turkish-backed rebels, Syrian soldiers and Russian mercenaries eye each other nervously amid talk of a new Turkish invasion. Also out of sight are the areas to the east where Iranian militants roam and where US-backed Kurdish forces are still hunting remnants of the Islamic State.

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All outside tourism agencies are required to work with local businesses registered with the Syrian Ministry of Tourism, who are responsible for processing visa applications and coordinating security clearances, accommodation and transportation.

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

Escorts interviewed for this article all said they were not accompanied by government guards, who are usually tasked with supervising and restricting 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 took over the Roman Empire in the 3rd century. The man is usually a lieutenant who was directly involved in the battles to liberate the city from Islamic State, which conquered the area twice, in 2015 and 2017, and destroyed some of the historic ruins.

“To really hear modern history,” White said, “with ISIS and the things that they did, to see the ruins of Palmyra that they had blown up and toppled, and to hear that they executed people on stage , in the auditorium we were sitting, it was really”, he stopped, “poignant”.

The officer describes the fighting, points out the damage, answers questions. “But then he makes a little ideological speech,” said an attendant, describing “the Syrian army as national heroes.”

To give as balanced a view as possible, this particular guide ensures that its journeys include another stop, where travelers meet a member of the Free Syrian Army, a loose group of factions and fighters created as a result of the revolts which spread across the country in 2011.

Composed at first largely of soldiers and officers who defected, it fought government troops across the country, calling the areas “liberated Syria”, before collapsing due to internal conflicts and other factors, amid the rise of radical Islamist groups.

The tour leader, who spoke on condition of anonymity for security reasons as he is still working in Syria, is making sure his bands hear a different side of the story here, where the Syrian army “began to massacring and burning houses, together with Hezbollah”.

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James Willcox, founder of British travel agency Untamed Borders, said tourists resuming visits to the country give Syrians the feeling 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 really positive sign; it’s one of those symbols of better times to come.

The revival of Western tourism in Syria represents a lifeline for hotels, restaurants and small business owners, especially those in the old cities of Damascus and Aleppo, which for generations have welcomed adventurous foreigners.

But they are not the only ones to benefit financially: individuals and groups close to the government naturally also benefit. According to local reports, the US-sanctioned Katerji Group, run by two brothers who made their fortunes through the war, has plans underway to turn the former military hospital in Aleppo into a five-star resort – taking advantage of of one of the most vicious sieges of the war, which saw entire neighborhoods leveled by Russian-backed artillery.

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

White said he traveled to Syria in April with Spain’s Against the Compass “because it’s just a place not many people have been, and I just wanted to see for myself.”

Visible from the citadel, whose walls were partly collapsed by a bomb in 2015, are the famous covered markets of Aleppo, once a must on the tourist route but now destroyed by fighting between the rebels and the government in 2012.” White said.

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