|Syrian hospitality sector stretches to accommodate traffic from Lebanon|
|Hotels in damascus are full and extra flights - out - have been added
The street outside the entrance to one of Damascus' top hotels, the Shams Palace, is chock-a-block with Saudi, Qatari and Lebanese vehicles jostling for parking space. Inside the lobby is swarming with families, businessmen and people sitting alone, many with a distant look in their eyes.
Although Syria's tourism industry has picked up in recent years, the hotel's full occupancy is a direct result of Israel's attacks on Lebanon over the past few days rather than any advertising campaign by Syria's tourism board.
"Since the attack all suites and rooms are totally booked," said a manager at the Shams Palace. It was the same story at all the other mid- and high-end hotels in Damascus.
"We are totally booked out - overbooked in fact," said a manager at Le Meridien. "All hotels in Damascus are booked out."
With Syria as the only escape route from Lebanon since Israel bombarded Beirut's international airport, all Syria's borders, to the north and east of Lebanon, have been inundated with fleeing tourists, foreign expatriates and Lebanese. More than 15,000 reportedly entered through the Masnaa crossing on Saturday alone.
"We were there for a month on holiday, and planning to stay another," said Lebanese Nada Nejem, sitting with her son in the Shams Palace lobby.
Judging from those interviewed by The Daily Star, most people who have fled Lebanon will not stay in Syria, having lost the care-free vacation spirit.
"We will just stay for a few days, then go back to Abu Dhabi, where my husband works," said Nejem. "There is no point staying here with what is going on in my homeland."
Other Lebanese and Arabs interviewed said they were also looking to get out of Syria.
"I left Beirut two days ago. I was planning to stay a week but we couldn't stay. We got out no problem, thank God," said Mohammad from Kuwait. "I don't know what will happen in Lebanon, but I don't want to stay here."
Gulf Air said it had added an extra three flights a day to cater to the increased numbers of people wanting to leave Syria. The airline usually fills 50 to 100 seats a day at this time of year, but is now flying out between 400 and 600 passengers a day.
"Now we have a peak season," said a Gulf Air sales representative. "If the situation remains the same, we will have no passengers in September."
He added that arrivals into Damascus are zero.
"There are no hotels and no rentals cars, so people are thinking, why risk it?"
A Syrian businessman who declined to give his name left Lebanon on Sunday and said it took five hours to cross the border. He said Israel would not risk an attack on Syria.
"If they strike Syria they will open a front from Afghanistan to Lebanon. Syria is like the safety pin in a hand grenade. If you pull that pin you are asking for trouble," he said. He plans to stay a few days in Damascus before returning to his work in Kuwait City.
Following the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri last February and a string of bombings throughout the year in Beirut, Lebanon's tourism sector took a nosedive. But this year tourism had started to pick up again, with the government projecting a figure of 1.6 million visitors, the highest growth since the Civil War ended in 1990. Figures for the first six months of the year showed a 24 percent increase on the same period last year, with 600,000 visitors recorded.
The tourism sector was a major part of the country's economy and was expected to generate $4.4 billion this year. All that has, of course, changed.
"I have been visiting Lebanon on vacation every summer for the past four years," said Masood Abdullah of Dubai. "Now, who knows when I will be able to go there again?"
Damascus,07 24 2006
The Daily Star