Affordable, friendly and ready for tourists – this is the message behind a new drive to promote Syria as a holiday destination, despite a recent human rights report determining the Assad government was responsible for “crimes against humanity” and the Foreign Office warning against all travel to the country.
In a bid to revive the country’s once thriving tourism industry before the devastating civil war killed thousands, levelled cities and drove 13 million people from their homes, the government has begun a concerted campaign to convince investors – and holidaymakers – that Syria has much to offer foreign visitors.
Earlier this month, the Ministry of Tourism launched 25 tourism projects at an investment conference in Damascus, including the prospect of creating private beaches after the announcement of a $60m (£52m) Russian-backed deal to build a hotel complex in the coastal town of Latakia.
Whether tourists will want to holiday in a country where thousands of civilians have been killed in the past decade and the risk of regional violence is high remains to be seen. But a number of high-profile travel influencers have spent the last year doing just that, and promoting their experience of visiting “the Syria the media won’t show you” to millions of viewers online, boosting the country’s image as a viable destination for anyone wishing for a different travel experience.
After the easing of pandemic restrictions in March, a number of travel bloggers began posting videos of their trip to Syria – and now some are even organising tours.
Xavier Raychell Blancharde offers guided tours of Syria through a travel company named after his YouTube channel, Travelling the Unknown, after first visiting Syria in 2018. The tours start at $1,300 (£1,230), which he told the Guardian would show a “different side” of Syria and counter the isolation of the country, especially for civilians living there.
The Spanish travel blogger Joan Torres, who also organises Syria expeditions for €1,590 (£1,380), said he was able to travel by himself the first time he visited in 2018, though the government later required that tourists travel with a guide. Torres prompted anger from Syrians abroad with his first trip, especially with his description of Aleppo as having been “liberated” by Assad’s forces.
Torres says he might not use the same language today but admits that he does not speak openly about Syria when it comes to the war. However, he says he similarly controls his comments when he goes to Saudi Arabia and other countries.
“I will not say anything bad about the government, of course, because I’m risking detention,” he says. “In which country where you go often, where there’s no freedom of speech, would you start saying bad things about the government?”
“The vloggers are going to Syria because you need to do something different to stand out,” says Sophie Fullerton, a disinformation researcher. “There’s a pattern of the travel influencers going to get more attention – there was one who went from about 700 followers up to 50,000 after he went to Syria.”
Fullerton says the arrival of tourists is used by government-friendly media, to promote a normalised image of Syria. State news agency Sana has reports on even small tour groups visiting historical sites.
Syrian activists say the influencers, knowingly or not, have delivered an inaccurate image of the country to their millions of subscribers of the regime and life for the 4.5 million people besieged in the rebel-held north-west.
Fared al-Mahlool, an Idlib-based journalist and researcher who was displaced from his home, says he is angered by the disparity between what is shown in influencer content and his reality. “Syria will not be safe as long as Assad controls power. There are thousands of detainees in Assad’s prisons, poverty and unemployment. Whoever says that Syria is safe is a liar,” says Mahlool.
Mahlool believes that after a decade of war, the government is trying to normalise its image by encouraging influencers as well as entertainers to visit, pointing towards a statement by the Egyptian singer Hany Shaker saying he was invited by the tourism ministry.
Yet despite tour providers having to work closely with the government when organising visits – according to travel companies offering trips to Syria, tourists can only visit in groups, must apply for security clearance weeks in advance and must be accompanied by a guide – Blancharde says that the purpose of his work is to help alleviate the poverty facing millions of Syrian people.
Yet Fullerton says that the increase in travel to Syria raises questions about the ethics of making travel content. “People should be able to travel where they want but you need to engage in ethical travel and you need to be mindful of what has happened there,” she says. “The people who come and rewrite the last 10 years of history do a disservice to the Syrians who can’t go back.”