Image: Syria Tourism
In January 2011, Syria's tourism industry was booming. Eight and a half million tourists had flocked to Syria the year before, despite a US trade embargo. A report from the tourism ministry showed that the sector had grown 40 percent between 2009 to 2010.
With the industry pulling in $8.4 billion annually, 2011 was shaping up to be another busy year for the nation's growing array of travel agencies and tour operators. Just two months later, violent revolution erupted. The tragic, bloody civil war that ensued dealt the burgeoning industry a fatal blow. But nobody told Syria's tourism ministry.
The Assad regime, perhaps in a vain attempt to maintain some air of normalcy, has continued to direct government resources towards tourism outreach. As recently as August 25th, the ministry of tourism was announcing initiatives designed to "continue to build Syria as an international tourist destination all over the world."
At the time of the now-infamous chemical attacks, Assad was personally issuing an amendment to encourage tourism and consumer protections.
There's perhaps no better testament to the delusional nature of the Assad regime than its dedication to promoting its tourism sector in the face of all-out war. But promote it did. The site is down at the moment (Google cache here—it takes forever to load), but as recently as last week SyriaTourism.org directed foreign visitors to the finest ruins, restaurants, beaches, and museums the nation had to offer.
A section titled "Syria ... come see for yourself," describes "the current situation of tourism industry in Syria, highlighting the short and mid-term plans taken by the Ministry of Tourism to manage the current crisis in Syria aiming to reduce its negative effects on the tourism sector, in addition to underlining the key priorities ... to continue to build Syria as a major international tourist destination all over the world."
The site also listed the various meetings the tourism ministry was apparently holding and the programs it was apparently pursuing, all despite the number of actual tourists currently in Syria equaling, approximately, this one insane Japanese guy. Everyone else has steered clear.
Here, for instance, is a call for tourism sector employees to "emphasize creativity" and to "find the markets and alternative products."
In a release about a meeting chaired by the current managers in the ministry, Minister of Tourism Hala Nasser publicly calls on employees "to continue the work of the tourism sector." Acknowledging that the industry had [sic] "suffered more sectors of the crisis experienced by the country," she nonetheless advocated tourism employees to keep thinking outside the box.
According to the post, the meeting itself was held to commemorate "the launch of individual and collective initiatives in each sector and stimulate initiatives that inspire pride in the country and ... to create a work environment that allows for individual initiatives and collective in the districts that form the basis of the new vision and business development."
That's just depressing. Essentially, the regime, which has apparently failed to come to grips with the fact that its two year war has annihilated one of the nation's most promising industries, is still asking its employees to just try to come at this thing from another angle. Assad and his minions are perhaps forgetting that there's only so much you can do to try to get folks to come visit a country that willfully poisons its own children to death.
Alas, the regime isn't alone. Visit-Syria.org is still limping along, too, offering recommendations and traveling tips to no one. The site's webmaster may want to update its proclamation that "Visitors to Syria will always find something to their liking," as that is likely the polar opposite of the reality. "This Essential Information" is also rather unfortunate:
I guess war isn't exactly urban crime, and sarin gas doesn't count as a communicable disease, so perhaps this is still relatively accurate. Other websites have shut down or gone idle in the face of the conflict, and that list of travel agencies that was so long in 2011 is mostly filled with broken links.
Elsewhere, web users have used the specter of vanishing tourism to highlight the plight in Syria. The Syria Tourism Facebook page, for example, seems to be a deep black satire of the nation's fate. Either that, or its curator is unwaveringly optimistic—the page was founded in 2012, in the thick of the conflict. It shares images of the country's heritage, along with contextually ominous places like cemeteries and military museums, often with a logo overlaid on the scene.
For now, we can assume that it's a joke that only sociopaths could muster a laugh at (I reached out to the page's admin, and will update if I hear back)—and perhaps one that's even mocking Assad's diligence in boosting tourism at a moment when Syria is in the grips of a war that has no end in sight. Still, there is something uniquely disturbing about the fact that he deems his nation not just safe enough, but alluring enough to attract foreign visitors while blood is literally spilling in the streets. "Syria ... come see for yourself," indeed.