Europeans return to Syria, fueling tourism and attracting criticism

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

The ancient Citadel of Aleppo has never been breached, his guide said, pointing to the thin slits and other openings along the walls where 800 years ago defenders shot arrows and poured boiling oil on Crusader invaders. In 2013, those openings became sniper positions.

The medieval fortification is surrounded by a deep moat and steep walls, with the sole entrance through a stone bridge resting atop high columns. The protection the citadel offered centuries ago was revived in 2013, when government forces holed up there for three years, fending off rebels in the city below, fueled by the belief that he who 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 uptick in visitors from Western countries. Authorities restarted issuing visas in October to let curious foreigners see for themselves the country whose conflict once dominated television screens and flooded Europe with refugees.

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Now, as the echoes of war die down in Syria — despite several still-active front lines — and travelers are returning, detractors demand that visitors consider how their trips support a government known for its oppressiveness and brutality.

Criticism of such trips has mounted abroad, particularly in 2019 following a brief revival of Western tourism and the ensuing flood of videos and blogs by travel influencers. Anger flared among Syrians residing abroad, many of whom had been displaced by the war and cannot return home themselves.

Syria had resumed granting tourist visas in 2018 in hopes of pulling in some much needed revenue, before the pandemic put an end to that.

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

White, like many of his fellow travelers, knows the criticism that tours such as his face, and everyone in his group wondered if this is “effectively supporting the Assad regime.”

“But no, we were supporting the Syrian economy,” he said. “We’re supporting the people on the street, trying to bring some money into the economy.”

The tours typically cost about $1,700 per person for a week-long trip that includes stops in Damascus, Aleppo, Palmyra (with its unparalleled Roman-era ruins) and the Crusader fort of Krak des Chevaliers — considered one of the finest examples of medieval military architecture in the region.

Where they don’t go is to the northwest, where former al-Qaeda affiliates, Turkish-backed rebels, Syrian soldiers and Russian mercenaries nervously eye one another amid talk of a new Turkish invasion. Out of sight are also the areas to the east where Iranian militants roam and US-backed Kurdish forces are still hunting the remnants of the Islamic State.

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All outside tourism agencies are required to work with local companies registered with Syria’s Tourism Ministry, which are responsible for handling visa applications and coordinating security clearances, accommodation and transportation.

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

Tour leaders interviewed for this article all said they are not accompanied by government minders, who are typically assigned to supervise and restrict the movement of foreign visitors.

There is one exception: An unarmed member of the Syrian army escorts every group through Palmyra, desert city of the fabled Queen Zenobia, who took on the Roman Empire in the 3rd century. The man is typically a lieutenant who was directly involved in the battles to liberate the city from the Islamic State, which conquered the area twice, in 2015 and 2017, and destroyed some of the historic ruins.

“Really hearing the modern history,” White said, “with ISIS and the things that they got up to, seeing the ruins in Palmyra that they had blown up and knocked down, and hearing that they executed people on the stage, in the auditorium we were sitting in, it was really,” he paused, “poignant.”

The officer describes the battles, points to the damage, answers questions. “But then he gives a little bit of an ideological speech,” said one tour leader, painting “the Syrian army as national heroes.”

To give as balanced a view as possible, this particular tour leader makes sure his trips include another stop, where the travelers meet a member of the Free Syrian Army, a loose band of factions and fighters created in the wake of the revolts that spread throughout the country in 2011.

Made up at first largely of defected soldiers and officers, it fought government troops across the country, labeling areas “liberated Syria,” before collapsing from infighting and other factors, amid the rise of radical Islamist groups.

The tour leader, who spoke on the condition of anonymity for security reasons because he still works in Syria, makes sure his groups hear a different version of history here, where the Syrian army “started slaughtering and burning down houses, along with Hezbollah.”

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James Willcox, founder of the Britain-based travel agency Untamed Borders, said tourists summarizing their visits to the country give Syrians a sense that some things, at least, are slowly returning to normal. “After a decade of conflict, normalization is good,” he said in a phone interview. “It’s a really positive sign; it’s one of those symbols of better times ahead.”

The resumption of Western tourism in Syria does present a lifeline for hotels, restaurants and small-business owners, especially those in and around old cities in Damascus and Aleppo, who for generations have been catering to adventurous foreigners.

But they are not the only ones to gain financially: Individuals and groups close to the government naturally stand to benefit as well. According to local reports, the Katerji Group, under US sanction and run by two brothers who accrued their wealth on the back of the war, has plans underway to turn Aleppo’s old military hospital into a five-star hotel complex — profiting from one of the most vicious sieges of the war, which saw whole neighborhoods leveled by Russian-backed artillery.

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

White said he visited Syria in April with the Spanish-based agency Against the Compass “because it is just a place that not a lot of people have been to, and I just wanted to see for myself.”

Visible from the citadel, whose walls were partly collapsed by a bomb in 2015, are Aleppo’s famous covered markets, once a must-see on the tourist trail but now destroyed by fighting between the rebels and the government in 2012. “Heart-wrenching, White said.

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