Syria: Your Next Travel Destination?

Syria: Your Next Travel Destination?

As the pressures and responsibility of real life take their toll, you start to reminisce about your carefree holiday self and think where you could travel to next.

Bali… Greece… Paris… Fiji… Tokyo… Syria?

No, definitely not Syria. But less than a decade ago, it could have been.t

Before 2011 and the destruction that came about afterwards, the Middle Eastern nation was home to some of the world’s most ancient and beautiful ruins that have now been, well, ruined. In 2010, tourism in Syria was on the rise, and its future looked bright. Then war erupted, and any chance of it becoming the next travel hotspot was blown to pieces, just like many of its cities and sites.

Lonely Planet says of the country, “To put it simply, you can’t go. And if you can, you shouldn’t.”

But with conflict no longer at its height, the Assad regime has started to promote the country as a holiday destination. Sites include Aleppo and its Citadel, which is slowly struggling to rebuild after the many airstrike attacks it was bombarded with. Palmyra was also endorsed, particularly the ruins from the Roman-era that have been listed on the UNESCO archaeological site. A daytrip to the Islamic State headquarters, however, did not make the list.

Despite the ongoing war in Syria, which has seen more than 500,000 civilians die since 2011, among them 500 the last fortnight in eastern Ghouta, Syrian representatives attended the International Tourism Fair in Spain earlier this year to promote the country as a holiday destination. It was the first time they had done so since just before the war broke out.

2011 was a big year for the Middle East, and initially looked set to bring change for the better. Tunisia kicked off the Arab Spring, and were able to oust their President. Egypt also started a revolution that got rid of its President, but the replacements have not brought about the progress the revolution craved. Yemen is currently in a highly dangerous civil war that’s proving just as fatal and catastrophic as Syria’s, but does not garner the same attention as Syria from Western media.

One of the countless tragedies of war is that not only do people lose their lives, but history is lost as well. Think about a civil war erupting in Italy and, in its wake, the Colosseum, the Leaning Tower of Pisa and so many of the historic sites people from all over the world flock to see are destroyed. Egypt could have easily gone down a different road when its revolution broke out. The outcry that would have come about if the pyramids were struck down and destroyed by airstrikes would have seen western nations defending these landmarks. The same cannot be said, though, about the ruins in Aleppo and Palmyra and the old towns that were lost.

Syria shouldn’t necessarily be your next travel destination (I mean, what’s more relaxing than the threat of death hovering over you?), but it is important to remember that war is not a constant in any place, and does not define it. Damascus, Syria’s capital and most likely its now-largest city given the population decline in Aleppo, is one of the oldest cities in the world. Were it located in a western country and easy to access, it would be inundated with tourists hankering to get a feel of its history and culture.

It’s so easy to distance ourselves from wars that happen faraway in a place we wouldn’t dream about going to. The terrorist attacks of London, Manchester, Barcelona and Paris are certainly abhorrent, but they are no more devastating than those that occur in the Middle East. But these places resonate with us more because they are destinations many of us have been to or desire to visit. They feel closer to home, even though they’re just as distant.

Last year, Syria saw 1.3 million tourists enter its borders, but most were from the neighbouring country of Lebanon, and that number includes day visitors. Experienced traveller Chris Lindgren visited Syria both before and after the war broke out, going to Damascus, Homs and Aleppo. He argues that it’s one of the best countries out of the 106 he’s been to.

It may sound crazy to most, but Lindgren insists Syria is a lovely country that has been misrepresented by the media. “All tourist shops in Damascus, bar, pubs and clubs are all open and running, restaurants are open all around, hotels offer taxi service with English, French, German speaking guides,” he explains. “Walking around East Aleppo and talking to locals that lived there during the war, I realised early that the media had been lying to us.”

Can we really know what a place is like if we haven’t really been there and experienced it for ourselves like Lindgren?

The sad truth is that Syria could be a beautiful place to live and visit. The historic sites and pristine beaches it has to offer makes it an incredible country. There’s just the whole war, airstrikes and terrorist groups that make the place a little off-putting to travel to, not to mention the fact that no restrictions have been lifted from the extremely hard-to-obtain travel and entry visas.

If the Assad regime really wants to attract more visitors to Syria, a good way to start would be to stop delivering airstrikes to its own nation. Then one day, among the snaps of France’s Eiffel Tower, China’s Great Wall and Peru’s Machu Picchu, our social media feeds will be littered with photos of the exquisite mosques, bathhouses and mausoleums of Damascus.

Cover via Ai@ce