DAMASCUS, Syria – Switching to new markets was the most important strategy Syria has lately taken to salvage tourism, the country’s second largest source of foreign currency, from inevitable breakdown, a senior Syrian official said.
Lamia Assi, Syrian tourism minister, said in an interview that the tourism sector has been enormously hit by the flare-up of unrest in the country in mid March.
In September, the European Union slapped Syria with sanctions that hit six Syrian companies, including Syriatel and its largest private company, Cham Holding, to intensify pressure on President Bashar al-Assad, who has come under withering international criticism for his regime’s months-long crackdown on protests.
The sanctions also banned investment in Syria’s oil sector, deemed to be Syria’s artery for hard currency.
“Of course, the sanctions have negatively and fundamentally impinged on the tourism sector even from the very start of the crisis given the unwarranted measures taken by Western countries, mainly banning their nationals from travelling to Syria and asking those in Syria to leave immediately,” Assi said.
“All this has led to a tangible slump in arrivals to Syria, especially from western Europe,” she complained.
Following the EU sanctions, Syria has said it would shift to the East for new markets, mainly friendly countries like Russia and China that had vetoed a UN Security Council resolution condemning the Syrian regime for alleged excessive use of violence against protesters.
Assi said the Syrian government is working to make up for the economic recession by shifting to new markets “that haven’t espoused any anti-Syria political stance and don’t have political agendas.”
She said Syria has managed to bring in delegations from friendly countries to get familiar with what is actually happening on ground “away from the media exaggeration made by some TV channels that depict events in the country as if there were a battlefield.”
“This shift to new markets is the most important measure that has been lately taken by the Syrian Ministry of Tourism,” she said.
She said Syria is bracing itself to host a delegation from China comprised of academics, researchers and journalists.
Assi said tourists who used to come to Syria to visit religious shrines are still coming, stressing the religious tourism has not been affected by the sanctions.
Despite the minister’s placations, coupled with other confirmations by senior Syrian officials, including Syrian Prime Minister Adel Safar who had said Sunday that unrest is on the wane, tourism in Syria is still at almost the zero scale and Syrians have started feeling the heat of the economic sluggish.
“It’s not getting better at all,” said Marwan, a worker at a five-star hotel in Syria, adding: “only a handful of rooms in the hotel that was used to be completely packed with guests, are being booked now.”
The Tourism Ministry’s statistics show that 8.545 million tourists visited Syria in 2010, including 440,311 European tourists. Most of the tourists came from Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey, with Gulf tourists a close second, followed by Americans and Britons.
Tourism in Syria has become an important source of hard currency in the last few years due to new measures taken by Syrian authorities to encourage this sector of Syria’s economy.
A considerable number of private sector tourist companies were set up in the last few years to contribute in promoting tourism in Syria by establishing active tourist relations with international tourist offices and companies.
These companies were given all necessary facilities by the ministry of tourism to bring in foreign tourists.
The most important factor which encourages tourists to come to Syria is the availability of historically valuable sites that are scattered in almost all parts of the Syrian territory.
The country also attracts highly educated European and Asian tourists to visit the country for study purposes.
Syria has introduced a package of reformist measures to quell nationwide protests. The committee that has been recently formed by Assad to write a new constitution for the country will convene Monday in Damascus in line with the process of reforms. Amending the constitution was still a major request by most Syrians.
Also, Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem headed Sunday for Doha, Qatar to meet the Arab League ministerial committee in charge with overseeing the situation in Syria, to discuss the best available ways to bring the crisis to a close and embark on dialogue including all spectrums of Syrian society, including the opposition.
Assi believes that economic dialogue is fundamental and is considered the second in importance after the political dialogue.
“We urgently need economic dialogue to settle many controversial issues, such as the government subsidy, labor laws and the issue of dealing with investments,” she said, adding: “we need dialogue at least to come up with an economic vision and new, in common, orientations.”