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French Version

Tourism fast-becoming Syrian cash cow

First quarter of 2005 saw 610,000 tourists visiting country

Tourism is not exactly the first word that comes to mind these days when thinking about Syria. But the Syrian government wants to change that, and it's increasingly pinning its hopes for economic revival on promoting the country's cultural heritage, which it sees as full of unrealized potential.

The idea that Syria, whose international reputation took a nosedive after the February murder of former Lebanese Premier Rafik Hariri, is imagining droves of French and Germans pumping euros into the economy might raise a few eyebrows.

However, consider newly released statistics.

According to the Syrian government, the first quarter of 2005 saw 610,000 tourists visit Syria, a 25-percent increase from the same period in 2004.

The Syrian government recently reported that the 6.2 million tourists who visited Syria in 2004 spent $1.85 billion, 31 percent more than was spent in 2003. The number of tourists visiting Syria, according to these statistics, is almost twice that of Jordan and about five times that of Lebanon.

"You can see from the statistics that there was about a 44-percent increase in the number of tourists from 2003 to 2004," says Bassem Barsik, the director of international relations for the Syrian Tourism Ministry. "That was the number one rate of increase in the world."

"Syria is a traditional destination for the Arabs so we focused our efforts on promotion in Europe," Barsik said. "We invited television crews from several stations and organized Syrian tourist weeks in many countries. We also participated in 15 tourism fairs across the world."

If Damascus, which advertises itself as the oldest continuously inhabited city in the world, seems to be pitching tourism particularly feverishly these days, it's probably because they need to.

Oil, the mainstay of Syria's economy, is in decline, down to around 535,000 barrels per day in 2003 from a peak of about 600,000 in the mid-1990's. The official unemployment rate is 10 percent, although most economists say it is over 20 percent. Around 300,000 young Syrians are entering the job market every year while the country's economy is expanding at less than 3 percent, nowhere near fast enough to keep pace with demographics.

The London-based World Travel and Tourism Council (WTTC) estimated that tourism to Syria will generate 2.1 percent of GDP in 2005 and about 130,000 jobs. Using economic models that take into account past performance and the current state of Syria's tourism industry, the WTTC predicted a 5 percent growth in the industry for 2005 and a 3.5 percent per annum growth between 2006 and 2015.

Boosting investment in tourism also fits within Damascus' plan to liberalize its economy. Syria's head of state planning Abdullah Dardari told The Daily Star in November that Damascus needs to attract $3.5 billion in spending from the private sector to help stave off an unemployment crisis.

Syria is hoping that increasing tourist numbers will attract money from both the Gulf and from Europe.

So far, the plan has been successful. A massive convention on tourism investment thrown last month in Damascus brought investors from 18 countries, including the Gulf countries, Egypt, Turkey, Russia, Greece, and even one Chinese company.

Syria offered tenders to 100 tourism sites - many of which have not been properly developed - and drew 127 applications, many from European countries according to Basik.

Saudi Prince Al-Waleed bin Talal, a close friend of Syrian President Bashar Assad, also made headlines at the convention by declaring he would continue to invest in Syria despite international pressure against it after the murder of Hariri, which many blamed on Syria.

Bin Talal spent $100 million in a Four Seasons hotel scheduled to open late 2005.

In by far the biggest single expenditure on tourism in recent years, the Dubai-based Majid al-Futaim Investments said at the end of 2004 that it would launch a $1 billion tourist resort complex near the Syrian-Lebanese border.

The Syrian government, further squeezed by the loss of an estimated $1.5 billion in remittances, is eager to team with the private sector and ease restrictions on foreign capital to take advantage of investment potential.

The government announced in March a $45 million project to develop the summer mountain resort area of Zabadani northwest of Damascus. The project will include a 3.5 kilometer cable car, Syria's first.

But as even officials in Syria will say, the long-term success of tourism investment will depend on a change in Syria's international image.

"If you listen to the media or what the newspapers say maybe you will have a wrong image about Syria," Barsik said. "Because of that we are increasing our efforts in promotion. We are trying to correct these untrue images. All of our tourists find these perceptions are untrue and they tell all their friends."

Beirut,05 09 2005
The Daily Star
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